Updated allocations show severe water shortages will remain


Issue Date: March 25, 2009
Kate Campbell

Although the state's water supply outlook has improved slightly, farmers in many parts of California learned last week that they still face severe water shortages, as both federal and state water projects issued updated supply allocation estimates for the 2009 crop year.

The state Department of Water Resources said recent winter storms increased the Sierra snowpack to near 90 percent of average.

But the precipitation was not enough to provide any water for Central Valley Project agricultural service contractors south of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. The water allocation for those farmers in the western San Joaquin Valley remains at zero. The CVP said Friday it had increased the allocation for contractors north of the delta to 5 percent, up from zero.

The CVP also increased its allocation for the Friant Division contractors on the east side of the valley. Estimated deliveries for both agriculture and cities rose to 65 percent of Class 1 water, up from 25 percent. But estimates for Class 2 water remain at zero.

In a separate announcement, the State Water Project said it now expects to deliver 20 percent of requested water to its contractors, up from the earlier estimate of 15 percent. If the preliminary allocation of 20 percent is maintained, DWR said it would match the lowest water delivery allocation in state history.

In reaction to the water shortages, farmers throughout California are now fallowing ground and pulling out orchards and vineyards. Many are preparing to take emergency measures to help permanent crops survive until the water supply picture improves.

Meanwhile, groundwater supplies are shrinking and there appears to be little help in the offing from water sales and transfers due, in part, to water export constraints in the delta and infrastructure limitations.

"Although an increase in the amount of water delivered from the state's major water projects is encouraging, last week's allocation announcements show only marginal improvements," said Chris Scheuring, managing counsel for the California Farm Bureau Federation Natural Resources and Environmental Division.

"Our farmers are in a very tough situation when it comes to surface water supplies," Scheuring said. "We saw slight improvement from the two weeks of rainy weather we had in early March. But we're back in a dry cycle and the rainy season is almost over. Shortages and fallowing remain the order of business for agriculture in large portions of California."

"We thought they might come up with a little extra," said Dan Errotabere, who farms on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley and relies on water deliveries from Westlands Water District, which will receive no water from the CVP this year. Errotabere, president of the Fresno County Farm Bureau, said he is fallowing about 1,500 of his 3,600 acres as a result.

"At this point, all we can do is try and manage any way possible so we can make it through this year," he said.

"We're just one step short of a disaster here," said Tim Larson, a diversified grower in Kings County who relies on water deliveries from Westlands. "I've already taken out about 160 acres of alfalfa and we're trying to figure out how to save our grapes and pistachios. We're looking at what else we can cut back, but after a while there's not much left."

Larson, who is president of the Kings County Farm Bureau, said so far he hasn't had to lay off any employees, but with water getting more scarce, he's not sure how he's going to continue.

"I feel like Houdini," he said. "I just hope I can pull a rabbit out the hat this year."

"Everybody's frustrated with this water situation," said Mendota farmer Jeff Yribarren. "This summer the rest of the country will be laughing at us. We're the nation's most populous state, the largest agricultural producer, and yet we can't even figure out how to supply the most basic of resources—water for homes and food."

But beyond that, Yribarren said, "it's a human tragedy. Valley towns are drying up and farmers are buying food to distribute to people they used to employ and provide paychecks."

He said a zero water allocation means he can't farm all of his land or bring back all of his employees for the growing season. He said he'll be cutting out processing tomatoes, but may keep some alfalfa grown for seed.

For now he'll try operating the farm with just two employees and what he can do himself.

Although late season storms could push allocations up again, that's a possibility state meteorologist Elissa Lynn said is unlikely. Even so, by April or May farmers have already made planting decisions and crops are in the ground, so a late season increase in water deliveries wouldn't help much this year.

Farm Bureau's Scheuring noted that while 2008-09 precipitation levels stand near normal, reservoir levels are at historic lows after two previous dry years, combined with the impact of court decisions and Endangered Species Act restrictions that continue to take a toll on the state's water supplies.

Water agency officials note that between Feb. 15 and March 17, nearly 256,000 acre-feet of water that would have been available for export south of the delta washed into the Pacific Ocean as a result of the new U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Biological Opinion aimed at protecting the delta smelt.

"All of this points directly to a need to improve our system of capture and conveyance in order to avoid the year-to-year whipsaw of environmental and hydrological variance," Scheuring said.

"California is in the midst of a crisis that threatens to cripple our economy and quality of life," said state Water Resources Director Lester Snow. "In this third dry year, Californians must step up water conservation efforts, and we must utilize water transfers to alleviate impacts. Yet another dry year also points to the need for long-term investment in our state's water management infrastructure."

The current drought underscores the deeper structural problems facing California, said Laura King-Moon, assistant general manager of the State Water Contractors.

"The existing water delivery system, created half-a-century ago, no longer meets the state's needs," King-Moon said. "It's an inflexible, limited system that is not working, in a drought or otherwise.

"It is critical for Californians to realize we are at a major crossroads in the way we manage and supply water across the state," Moon said. "The primary water delivery system, which runs through the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, needs modernization and repair. The needs are urgent and critical."

(Kate Campbell is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at kcampbell@cfbf.com.)

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