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Barring ‘miracle,’ farm water will be in short supply

Issue Date: March 3, 2021
By Christine Souza

"We need a Miracle March," Kern County almond grower Don Davis says, expressing the concern of many farmers as California drops deeper into drought.

The U.S. Drought Monitor said last week 85% of the state is experiencing moderate to exceptional drought and, on the same day, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation announced low initial allocations for customers of its Central Valley Project.

The bureau said it had allocated 5% supplies to its agricultural service contractors both north and south of the delta.

Davis buys water through a Class 1 contract with the CVP Friant Division and would receive a 20% supply.

"That allocation means they will give me about 20% of my normal usage, so the other 80% is going to have to come from wells," he said.

Bureau of Reclamation Regional Director Ernest Conant said precipitation and snowfall remain well below average but the agency "will monitor the hydrology as the water year progresses and continue to look for opportunities for operational flexibility."

In the Westlands Water District, which received a 5% allocation, General Manager Tom Birmingham said in a statement that the announcement was not surprising, given current hydrologic conditions and regulations that restrict CVP operations.

"It is devastating nonetheless for farmers and communities across the region that rely on water from the CVP and jobs created by irrigated agriculture," Birmingham said.

Ryan Ferguson, who farms a mix of crops in the Huron area of the Westlands district, said the 5% allocation "is going to make it difficult to manage water budgets this year." He said he will not plant land where he lacks a contract for crops, such as pima cotton.

The additional constraints and costs associated with balancing groundwater supplies under the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, or SGMA, may bring further cuts in planting of annual crops, Ferguson said.

"In the future, when SGMA is fully implemented, processors that want their crop grown year in and year out have to probably up the prices they're paying, to compete with permanent crops to secure acreage," he said.

Cannon Michael, who farms permanent and row crops in Los Banos and chairs the San Luis & Delta-Mendota Water Authority, said the CVP allocations may actually be better than people thought, noting that many on the Westside expected zero.

"Hydrology, including precipitation and snowpack, have been down, reservoir conditions are poor, operations in the delta are still constrained, so all of the unfortunate elements are there," Michael said. "We've had a program in place locally to do some land fallowing and transfer water to neighboring farms that don't have water."

Given the short water supply and implementation of SGMA, he said farmers and districts are "trying to use different tools and explore every option," such as seeking to build Del Puerto Canyon Reservoir, groundwater recharge projects and more.

Michael farms on district ground with 5% supplies and has land with pre-1914 water rights, where the CVP allocated 75%. He said he will likely plant fewer acres of annual crops and employ measures such as deficit irrigation of alfalfa and cut wheat early for silage. Winter crops of garlic, carrots and onions are in the ground, and contracted processing tomatoes and watermelons are currently growing as transplants in a greenhouse.

Michael said he intends to use groundwater to supplement surface supplies, but ultimately, "everything is going to cost a lot more related to water, such as electricity and conveyance."

"The reality is it takes water to grow crops and ultimately, we still need to be able to operate the reservoirs in the existing system that we have," he said.

North of the delta, agricultural contractors also face 5% supplies; Sacramento River Settlement contractors were allocated 75%.

"Unless we get some crazy precipitation in March, it's going to be a critically dry year," Northern California Water Association President David Guy said.

"While it is a little early, there's a lot of water transfer discussions going on right now, pretty much on all sides of the valley," Guy said, adding that the state Department of Water Resources "has a process that they've kind of rejuvenated to help make transfers work a little easier, and so there's a lot of effort going on to try to help with that."

In dry years such as this, he said, "We wish we had Sites Reservoir and a big pool of water sitting inside the reservoir right now that everybody could access—the fish, the birds, the farms—everybody."

The Bureau of Reclamation said several south-of-delta and Friant Division contractors are rescheduling unused water from 2020 supplies into 2021. That water is being stored in San Luis Reservoir and Millerton Lake.

Friant-area farmer Davis said the water remained unused last year due to the timing of water allocations.

"When the almond year was almost over, they gave us another 20% and that's why a lot of farmers gave water back," he said.

In the State Water Project, operators announced an initial allocation of 10% of requested supplies. The allocation, announced last December, matched the previous year's initial SWP forecast. A final 2020 allocation of 20% was set in May.

At the Tulare Lake Basin Water Storage District, an SWP contractor that also relies on water from the Kings River, Regulatory Specialist Justin Mendes said farmers hope the allocation might increase before April, so they can plant more acres.

"Our farmers make their calculations on what's available," Mendes said.

"It is very simple in that they can only grow with the amount of water that is available or they have to pump their groundwater, and everyone's in a GSA (groundwater sustainability agency) now," he said, referring to the local agencies formed to administer groundwater supplies under SGMA.

(Christine Souza is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at csouza@cfbf.com.)

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




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