Water managers weigh implications of order

Issue Date: June 9, 2010
Kate Campbell

With additional water flowing into San Luis Reservoir as the result of a court order, how—or if—that water will be allocated this year has not been decided. At the same time, reservoirs throughout the state are filling as an improved snowpack begins to melt.

An estimated 200,000 to 300,000 acre-feet of additional water is being transferred to San Luis Reservoir, after court rulings by U.S. District Court Judge Oliver Wanger in Fresno. As a result of lawsuits filed by water agencies, the judge lifted pumping restrictions for salmon. Negotiations continue among the water districts, government agencies and environmental organizations to revamp pumping restrictions related to delta smelt.

The amount of water stored in San Luis Reservoir stood at about 390,000 acre-feet when the photo on the left was taken. Now, right, it has increased to more than 1.4 million acre-feet.

A spokeswoman for one of the water districts that brought the lawsuits, Sarah Woolf of the Westlands Water District in Fresno, said additional water being captured through the currently increased pumping could result in the availability of more water to plant additional broccoli, lettuce and cauliflower for fall harvest, "but the bureau has not told us that we will be getting any more water supply at this point in time. We don't know what the increased supply going into storage means for us."

Don Glaser, director for the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation Mid-Pacific Region, said there have been discussions about issuing a revised Central Valley Project water allocation for agriculture, but no decision has been made. The bureau had earlier said it would deliver 40 percent of contract supplies to its CVP farm customers south of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

At the end of this week, storage in San Luis Reservoir stood at more than 1.4 million acre-feet, after dropping as low as 180,000 acre-feet last autumn. The reservoir serves as a way station for water pumped from the delta, before being transferred into CVP or State Water Project canals for delivery to farms and cities to the south. Agency and privately purchased water also is stored in the reservoir as space allows.

Glaser said once the bureau learns the outcome of the current litigation, "we can tell what the implications will be for our operations in general terms."

Beyond any potential additional water for 2010, he said, "next year's water allocations from the CVP are based on our ability to pump water that's available between now and the end of the water year. Beginning July 1, we've modeled pumping at full capacity all through the fall. That's the period when the biological opinions (for salmon and delta smelt) and the restrictions under our permit would be lifted."

Westlands spokeswoman Woolf said any additional water available this year "would be a benefit because it will allow farmers to do less groundwater pumping and slow (land) subsidence. The groundwater brings a lot of salts and concentrates it on the seed bed. This cleaner water would help flush the salts back into the soil.

"An increase also would be beneficial if more water is carried forward into the next crop year," she said. "The banks also are looking at this water storage situation to help them decide about supply risk for next year."

Farmer Ryan Ferguson of Huron noted that the initial allocation from the CVP stood at 5 percent.

"Now we're sitting here in June with a 40 percent federal allocation and a big discrepancy in our water budget. We didn't plant anything without having a firm water source. So, if we'd known we were getting more we could have put in more crops."

That, he said, could have translated into additional sales and income this year.

"Everyone is thankful for more water, don't get me wrong," he said. "It's like Christmas this year, compared to last year. But, we got the water allocation announcement so late in the game this year we didn't plant. We may try to catch up with late planted tomatoes and melons."

West side farmer Jim Wells said he's going to try to purchase water that won't become available for transfer until later in the year. Many times, he said, supplemental water becomes available too late to use in the current crop year, but the ability to store and carry water over in San Luis Reservoir for use in the next crop year helps farmers manage increasingly uncertain water supplies.

"That's how we've survived in the past," Wells said. "We pay for more expensive water, but at least we can count on it. Now, they're talking about an allocation amount for next year that's not sustainable. That means we're going to have to try and gather some water up. This year is unique in that there's going to be very little space to store this carryover water.

"The average person would look at the water in storage and say, 'What are you crying about?'" Wells said. "The truth is, if we don't have adequate storage capacity to smooth out supply allocations, then water gets spilled to the ocean and we're right back where we started."

(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.