Low State Water Project allocation underscores crisis

Issue Date: December 9, 2009
Kate Campbell

Three years of drought and mounting environmental restrictions have added up to the lowest estimated State Water Project deliveries in history. The announcement came last week, as efforts to address the crisis continued on a number of fronts.

California Farm Bureau Federation water policy experts cautioned that the initial allocation—just 5 percent of the State Water Project's total contracted amount of about 4.2 million acre-feet—errs on the side of caution should dry conditions persist. But they also stressed the unusually low preliminary allocation is cause for serious concern as California enters what traditionally has been the wettest time of year.

The historical average of final SWP allocations during the past decade, as a percentage of initial requests, has been about 68 percent, but state Department of Water Resources Director Lester Snow said, "nevertheless, on the heels of a three-year drought, we need to prepare now so that we have adequate water supplies for homes, farms and businesses."

He pointed to the prolonged drought in Australia during a news conference last week and said the severe impacts of that nation's water shortage show the consequences of not being sufficiently cautious in allocating limited supplies. The best-case scenario, Snow said, if the current water year turns out to be wet, is that the State Water Project allocation could be increased to between 20 percent and 40 percent.

For the federal Central Valley Project, the first estimated delivery allocation will be made about mid-February. U.S. Bureau of Reclamation officials said the estimate will take into account carryover storage and precipitation, as well as other factors such as estimated runoff and watershed conditions.

The Central Valley Project begins 2010 with about 4.4 million acre-feet of water in storage, equal to 39 percent of capacity in five key CVP reservoirs: Shasta, New Melones, Trinity, Folsom and the federal portion of San Luis Reservoir.

Federal officials point out that drought-related flow restrictions and species protection measures have reduced the amount of water moved through pumps in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. They said in the past, an average of about 5.7 million acre-feet of water a year has been transferred. Restrictions this year reduced the amount to 3.6 million acre-feet—a 1.6 million acre-foot reduction due to low flows and a 500,000 acre-foot reduction due to protections for the delta smelt.

The most recent state Department of Fish and Game survey indicates that four delta fish species—delta smelt, longfin smelt, striped bass and threadfin shad—are at their lowest-ever population levels. At the same time, millions of California residents and hundreds of thousands of acres of farmland depend on water supplies transferred through the delta.

"Federal biological opinions to protect delta species and our broken water infrastructure mean we may very well see a lot of water unneccessarily flush out the Golden Gate this year," California Farm Bureau Director of Water Resources Danny Merkley said. "That's water that might otherwise be stored and available later for species, food production and urban uses."

He said policy makers "need to focus now on real, short-term solutions, which means some regulatory modifications, fast-tracking measures to allow moving water from willing sellers to willing buyers around the state and working to increase flexibility in the system."

Merkley said that includes completing interim projects like the intertie between the state and federal water systems and the Two Gates Project, which would install temporary barriers to protect delta smelt.

Meanwhile, environmental groups appealed a federal court decision to uphold long-term water delivery contracts in the Central Valley. The appeal was filed last week in the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals by groups including the Natural Resources Defense Council and San Francisco Baykeeper. The environmental groups charge that water contracts with valley farmers violate the Endangered Species Act and must be renegotiated to reflect current science.

Because Farm Bureau represented the interests of farmers and ranchers in the proceeding before federal District Judge Oliver Wanger, CFBF Natural Resources and Environmental Division Managing Counsel Chris Scheuring said Farm Bureau will continue to be involved in these related court proceedings.

"This latest action is a challenge to Judge Wanger's decision to leave in place the long-term contracting relationships between the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and local CVP contractors," Scheuring explained. "The NRDC is trying to leverage Judge Wanger's decision on the delta smelt biological opinion into a long-term reorganization of the contracting relationship for CVP water."

Because the delta continues to be a "litigation magnet," Scheuring said, the multitude of legal actions currently in the courts threatens to tie up efforts to improve the delta ecosystem and block steps to gain a more secure water supply for all Californians.

Actions by the Obama administration to address the state's water crisis include finalizing a "Memorandum of Understanding" among six government agencies. Its stated purpose is to "reestablish a leadership role in bay-delta matters and work in partnership with the state and key stakeholders."

Commenting last week on the proposed memorandum, Farm Bureau told the administration that what's needed to improve water supply reliability is a combination of solutions for the delta, including new surface water storage with continuous appropriation, protections for area-of-origin water rights, improved conveyance and delta ecosystem improvements.

"This holistic approach will provide water supply reliability for our growing population, vital environmental protection, and ensure farmers' ability to continue growing our nation's own safe and nutritious food supply," said Elisa Noble, CFBF National Affairs natural resources director.

"We were disappointed, however, to see that the (memorandum) only discussed the importance of the delta to the agricultural industry," Noble said in a letter to the agencies. "We hope the administration also understands the impact (of California agriculture) on the American consumer, and the contribution it makes to our country's ability to produce a domestic food supply."

From a national food security perspective, Noble stressed, "the administration should be concerned that the nation's largest and most diverse food-producing state is in jeopardy of having to drastically reduce its ability to grow food."

The memorandum calls for completion of the formal "near-term" federal work plan for the bay-delta by Dec. 15. The U.S. Department of the Interior has been tapped as the lead agency and will coordinate with other federal agencies, the state and affected parties.

But for now, Noble said, California farmers and ranchers are waiting for actions that will provide some assurance there'll be water available when it's time to plant in the spring.

(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.