Water allocations bring frustration as reservoirs rise

Issue Date: March 3, 2010
Kate Campbell

The much anticipated water allocation announcements from federal and state water projects last week left many California farmers frustrated with the state's unreliable water delivery system. The preliminary federal allocation of 5 percent, with a promise of more water if average precipitation continues, did little to ease water worries.

While the announcements by the federal Central Valley Project and State Water Project contained the promise of improved water supplies this season, California Farm Bureau Federation President Paul Wenger said the news still leaves many farmers uncertain as they plan their 2010 crops.

The CVP warned that farm customers both north and south of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta could see allocations as low as 5 percent under the most conservative scenarios. The State Water Project raised its projected water deliveries to 15 percent.

"For farmers and their employees, this is like a nightmare that you can't wake up from," Wenger said. "What makes it worse is that, unlike previous years, these low allocations come at a time when snowpack levels stand near average and our reservoirs are refilling."

As of Monday, the Sierra Nevada snowpack averaged 106 percent of average statewide, Shasta Reservoir stood at 100 percent of average for this time of year, and San Luis Reservoir stood at more than 80 percent of average for the date. Many California reservoirs currently are at more than 100 percent of average.

Federal officials said CVP allocations could reach as high as 30 percent for farmers south of the delta and 100 percent for those to the north, if precipitation remains at least average this winter, and that they would pursue additional measures to supply another 8 percent to 10 percent of supplies for farm customers on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley, where water shortages have been most severe.

"The federal government is doing the right thing, to try to find more water to maintain food production and jobs on the Westside, but it took a lot of pushing and prodding for it to do so," Wenger said. "We're grateful to Sen. Dianne Feinstein for her proposal that led to last week's announcement from the CVP and we'll monitor carefully to make sure the federal government follows through on its promises."

Wenger stressed that ongoing water shortages have caused "lasting damage to farm families and rural communities" and that Farm Bureau will continue to urge government agencies to pursue additional solutions that address the water needs for all of California.

"With increased precipitation around the state, it's especially disheartening and discouraging to learn that farmers on Fresno County's west side will only receive 5 percent of their federal water allocation," said Dan Errotabere, a Westside farmer and Fresno County Farm Bureau president.

"This year, the federal government can't hide behind the drought like it has for the past three years. With the encouraging precipitation, it looks like there is more water in the system for everybody this year—except for us. Clearly, the fish actions are driving who gets water and how much," he said.

Federal and state water projects have reduced deliveries in part to use water for protected fish species.

Referring to the Interior Department's pledge to find an additional 8 percent to 10 percent to add to the water allocation, Errotabere asked, "If the tools to deliver a possible 30 percent to 40 percent supply have been available all this time, how come they're only coming into play now, on the heels of legislative pressure?"

Sen. Feinstein had announced plans to introduce an amendment to federal jobs legislation, which would have modified CVP operating rules slightly, allowing more water to move into storage during high water flows. Following the water-allocation announcement last week, Feinstein said she would continue to "watch this situation carefully" but would place her amendment "on hold."

Bill Koster, San Joaquin County row crop and tree farmer, said if the water allocation at the end of the rainy season turns out to be 5 percent, he won't plant any row crops.

"It would be just like last year," said Koster, who is a past president of the San Joaquin Farm Bureau Federation. "I lost money then and I'd lose this year, too. I can't continue farming this way."

"A 5 percent allocation is extremely disappointing, particularly considering the rain we've received and the size of the Sierra snowpack," said Jim Jasper, who grows tree crops on the Westside including almonds, citrus and cherries and buys water through the Del Puerto Irrigation District.

"With a 5 percent allocation, it's hard for farmers to make plans with banks, processors," Jasper said. "Really, everything should have been done by now. We've already paid for bees to pollinate, we've already sprayed. It's almost impossible to run a farming business on an allocation that's 5 percent of your contract amount. We've been pulling orchards out for the past two years."

He said a 40 percent allocation would have provided farmers a glimmer of hope, but the current, cautious, preliminary allocation "really handcuffs farmers."

Kings County farmer Joe Del Bosque said, "The way I look at it, all the stars are going to have to line up for us to get a 30 percent allocation. For us, 30 percent would get us through the year. It's a survival amount. It's too late for us to change our planting intentions at this point."

Del Bosque farms in four different water districts on the Westside—all of them depending on CVP water deliveries.

"Honestly, with 5 percent, my banker may not lend me money," he said.

Assuming the necessary agreements and permits can be secured, the U.S. Interior Department said it planned to acquire the additional 8 percent to 10 percent supplies for the Westside by: securing water from urban water suppliers in exchange arrangements; capturing and using excess restoration flows in the Mendota Pool; improved operations through more precise compliance with Old and Middle River flows by the Bureau of Reclamation and the State Water Project; additional water transfers to be made available from senior east side water users to the Westside, over and above customary east to west transfers; and authorization of additional pumping capacity at Banks Pumping Plant by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers during times that are not restricted by water rights permit conditions or environmental requirements.

In its statement last week, the CVP said settlement contractors with claims to senior water rights along the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers will be allocated 100 percent of their contract quantities this year. Wildlife refuges north and south of the delta will be allocated 100 percent of their allotment, about 400,000 acre-feet, but that would be delivered after the valley's irrigation season.

U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said a team from USDA headquarters will be in California this week to work with local USDA staff from Rural Development, the Natural Resources Conservation Service and the Farm Service Agency, to ensure that farm and community programs are being deployed and, he said, to ensure that conservation programs will provide more water in the valley over the long term.

"The reality is that the bay-delta ecosystem has collapsed, and a major, long-term solution is needed to secure reliable water flows," Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said. "We are looking forward to input from the National Academy of Sciences on these questions and will continue to aggressively pursue a comprehensive water supply and restoration plan so that California can have a sustainable water future."

(Kate Campbell is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at kcampbell@cfbf.com. Ag Alert reporter Ron Miller contributed to this story.)

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