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CVP districts seek ways to enhance water supplies

Issue Date: May 8, 2019
By Christine Souza

During a time in which the Sierra Nevada snowpack stands at about 140% of average but water supplies remain at 65%, managers of San Joaquin Valley water districts try to supplement supplies.

The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which operates the Central Valley Project, may update its 65% allocation for south-of-delta agricultural contractors later this month. But Lon Martin, general manager of the Los Banos-based San Luis Water District, said landowners who are planting crops and must secure water for the remainder of the year "cannot wait until May and June to make decisions."

In the San Luis district—one of the south-of-delta CVP contractors—the average annual amount of planted acreage remains steady at about 33,000 acres of mostly permanent crops such as almonds, pistachios, walnuts and citrus, with some row and field crops. Martin said total acreage in the district is 65,000 acres, which means only about half of the district's farm ground is planted.

"The planted acreage doesn't change very much because of the limited reliability of the water supply," he said.

"We believe there is a healthy snowpack and healthy reservoirs, and that should provide a little bit better allocation from the Central Valley Project to the south-of-delta ag contractors," Martin said. "The difficulty is, the bureau may not push the allocations out early enough in the year, so we have to go out on the market and secure that water supply."

To bolster the district's existing supply with supplemental water, the San Luis district works with neighboring districts to purchase, trade and transfer water, and also relies on its own banked water supplies.

"We just have to connect the dots between the people that have surplus water and the people that don't. Our landowners are still trying to recover from the drought years and rebuild their reserves in case of a drought, so this (wet year) is really helpful," said Martin, adding that the price for water is reasonable, given the ample supply. "We have to help each other out; that's the only way the Westside survives."

The San Luis Water District purchases water from the neighboring Central California Irrigation District, a Central Valley exchange contractor that provides water to about 1,900 farms across more than 150,000 acres, and to the city of Dos Palos. CCID received a 100% allocation from the CVP.

"The majority of the water that we have, we will deliver to the landowners and we will probably develop some well water as well," CCID General Manager Christopher White said. "In a 100% water year, we will transfer 35,000 acre-feet of our water supply to neighboring areas that are generally chronically short of water, which are on the CVP but have a lower-priority water supply."

White noted that water CCID sells is a lot less expensive in a year of plentiful supply, adding, "with market forces, that's just what happens."

"We take the funding from those water sales and plow it back into the district in a modernization and conservation improvement program. We're in the process of becoming more efficient and to accommodate all of our landowners who wish to convert to modern irrigation systems like drip and micro-sprinklers," White said. "Part of it is working on projects like regulating reservoirs internally or lining ditches or return systems to recapture rainwater or automating our canal systems. The water we're transferring is water we've conserved through these programs."

CCID also relies upon a good underground aquifer system, maintaining about 65 deep wells that it uses to develop additional water for farmers, White said.

"We have a really good aquifer and our GSA (groundwater sustainability agency) is going to be able to develop a groundwater sustainability plan that will meet all of the requirements of SGMA (the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act)," he said.

A riskier option for Westside districts looking to bolster water supplies is storing carryover water, such as in San Luis Reservoir, which could ultimately be lost.

That's what happened to the San Luis district, Martin said.

"This year, we carried water over in the reservoir and stored it, but because of the way the reservoir filled up, we lost about half of the water that we stored, meaning it got transferred from San Luis Water District to the Bureau of Reclamation," he said. "We rescheduled water from last year to help us jump-start this year. The rules of the bureau say, 'You can store your own water, but if it gets in the way of us, we're going to relabel it and it's going to go to the bureau because you got in our space.' That is the risk; we all know it and understand and accept it—and it's painful."

Martin said the San Luis district and other south-of-delta CVP contractors remain hopeful the project will soon update the allocation to a full 100% supply.

"Even though we're not happy with the bureau's (65%) allocation, we hope it goes up," he said.

California Farm Bureau Federation Senior Counsel Chris Scheuring said the less-than-full water supplies "continue to be a sign that we're hamstrung by regulatory constraints that are making it difficult to deliver water, even in the wettest of years."

The CVP must adhere to biological opinions for protected fish, issued under the Endangered Species Act, Scheuring noted.

"Even when we have a bunch of water, we can't deliver it sometimes, which of course is a call for infrastructure improvements and regulatory relief," he said.

(Christine Souza 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.

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