Likelihood of no water alarms CVP farmers

Issue Date: February 25, 2009
Kate Campbell

News that California farmers and ranchers will likely receive no water from the federal Central Valley Project this year has farmers scrambling to find alternative supplies and preparing to leave hundreds of thousands of acres of land idle. The priority now, farmers say, is to keep orchards and vineyards alive, but some say things are so bad they've already uprooted permanent plantings.

At the same time the devastating federal water allocation was announced last Friday, officials with the State Water Project said, based on recent storms, they'll stick by a 15 percent water allocation, at least for now.

Breaking the bad news, U.S. Bureau of Reclamation Regional Director Donald Glaser, center, tells reporters that farmers will get no water deliveries from the federal Central Valley Project if critically dry conditions persist. He's flanked by California Department of Water Resources Director Lester Snow, left, and CVP Operations Manager Ron Milligan.

But the CVP's initial allocation for agricultural service contractors north and south of the delta is zero, due to critically dry conditions. The allocation could increase to 10 percent for agriculture if forecast runoff levels reach average. Settlement or exchange contractors can expect 75 percent allocations if conditions remain dry, but 100 percent under average runoff amounts.

The allocation announced last week is based on runoff estimates on Feb. 1. Additional precipitation could increase final allocation amounts. Another snow survey that will reflect the contribution of recent storms will be taken about March 1.

State Department of Water Resources Director Lester Snow said during a Sacramento news conference, however, that there's only about a 10 percent chance storms in the next few months will bump up final water deliveries. He advised Californians statewide to immediately cut water use by 20 percent and prepare for rationing.

CVP Operations Manager Ron Milligan said these estimates of water deliveries to farmers are among the lowest in project history and reflect a third dry year, as well as increased demand from a growing population, more water for the environment and less flexibility to pump and store water due to system limitations and crippling court decisions.

Stressing that water reliability for Californians "has hit rock bottom," California Farm Bureau Federation President Doug Mosebar urged state government to take immediate, decisive actions to address California's water emergency.

Storage in the main State Water Project reservoir, Lake Oroville, stood at only 29 percent of capacity at the start of February.

"It doesn't get any worse than zero," Mosebar said. "People are scrambling to find enough water just to keep their crops, farms and businesses alive."

Fresno County farmer Dan Errotabere, who is president of Fresno County Farm Bureau, said the coming crop year is going to be extremely difficult. On the county's west side, where he farms, groundwater pumping is the only backup source of water.

"But, in terms of water quality, groundwater isn't friendly to the crops we grow," he said. "Many folks are going to be disappointed when they use groundwater on specialty crops because they don't respond very well."

On top of that, he said the groundwater table is declining, a problem that will be made worse by the additional pumping that will result from the likely zero allocation of federal irrigation water.

"There will be major fallowing on top of that and a lot of people will be out of jobs, including farmers themselves," he said. "I'm going to have to lay off half of my Westside workers who'd normally be helping in the vegetable crops."

The east side of Fresno County will suffer too, since Friant project water users can expect a water supply of just 200,000 acre-feet, only 25 percent of the total Class 1 water under contract. There will be no Class 2 water.

"This will go well beyond the farmgate before we get through this," Errotabere said. "We're losing our domestic food production capability and the safety of our food supply."

Farmers in the Westlands Water District have already begun destroying thousands of acres of almond orchards and plan on fallowing more than 300,000 acres of land, said Tom Birmingham, the district's general manager.

"Wherever possible, almond production will be stunted in hopes of keeping the trees alive through this desperate time. But there is no question that many years worth of investments will be lost. The human impact, however, is the worst," he said.

North of the delta, Glenn County tree crop farmer Mike Vereschagin said a zero water allocation, which was previously unheard of in his area, will make farming there very difficult.

"I need a minimum of a 10 percent water delivery just to cover everything and keep my orchards alive, even with my groundwater wells," he said. "I have one well we were trying to rework and see if we could get into service. I hooked up a tractor engine to test it and, after five minutes, it went totally dry."

Vereschagin said he expects what water he will have to be "five times more expensive than normal. I'm lowering the size of my sprinkler heads to reduce the gallons per minute I use. It's a serious situation here and, to tell the truth, we don't really know exactly what we're going to do yet."

Jeff Sutton, general manager of the Tehama-Colusa Canal Authority, said it's highly unlikely any new annual crops will be planted on the 150,000 acres the authority serves in the western Sacramento Valley, and farmers will be hard pressed to keep permanent plantings alive.

"We're looking to buy water to help our farmers protect their investments in permanent crops, which equates to about 50 percent of our acreage," Sutton said. "We're trying to figure it out and do what we can to avoid a complete disaster."

Water officials said last week that with statewide precipitation for the water year at about 75 percent of average, spring runoff predicted to be about 57 percent of average and statewide levels for major reservoirs projected to be at 43 percent of average, they also need to be mindful of needs in 2010, particularly if dry conditions persist.

Complicating the drought emergency are court rulings to protect endangered species, including delta smelt and salmon, which limit water transfers from the delta and impact reservoir storage.

CFBF President Mosebar said one of the ways the state can help in this emergency is to work with people who are willing to sell water to those who want to buy it and help move these transactions through without delay. He said reviews by the state water board are important to protect both water rights and people who might be indirectly affected by transfers, "but those reviews should continue at an accelerated pace."

Mosebar also urged the water board to provide the CVP and SWP with more flexibility to operate their systems to maximize water deliveries while avoiding unacceptable impacts on third parties or the environment.

He called on state water officials to "fast-track" design, permits and construction of pilot projects in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta to create barriers that could keep fish away from delta water pumps and improve water quality and supply reliability. He said the state should also move rapidly to conclude long-term delta planning work and ongoing studies of new water storage facilities.

"Continued improvements in water-use efficiency will be crucial in meeting this short-term emergency and our long-term water crisis," Mosebar said. "The state must provide new strategies and incentives to encourage increased investment in water-use efficiency for every sector of society."

Finally, Mosebar urged the state Legislature to take urgent action to address California's pressing water needs.

"It's obvious that California must act, now, to complete a comprehensive, long-term plan to fix our overtaxed water system," he said. "The Legislature must adopt a plan that features new surface water storage facilities and improved water-delivery systems as essential strategies, along with water recycling, efficiency and other features."

(Kate Campbell is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.