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Drought plan omits allocations for farm water

Issue Date: April 16, 2014
By Kate Campbell

A blueprint for managing water supplies during the 2014 drought indicates that enough water is now in storage to provide for human health and safety through the year, as well as meet mandated fisheries and habitat protection.

However, the drought operations management plan does not specify water for agriculture.

The 156-page plan, prepared jointly by state and federal agencies, addresses federal Central Valley Project and State Water Project operations, and spells out detailed approaches to balancing fisheries, habitat and human requirements in the event of a fourth dry year in 2015.

"The plan is striking in what it omits," said California Farm Bureau Federation Water Resources Director Danny Merkley. "Water needs for food production appear to be a low priority for state and federal water planners, and that's a disappointment."

Ara Azhderian, water policy manager for the San Luis and Delta-Mendota Water Authority, noted that despite improved storage resulting from storms since early February, the drought operations plan indicated no increase in water allocations to CVP or SWP customers, including prior rights holders.

"Nowhere is it stated that providing for people or the economy of California is a purpose of the plan," Azhderian said.

Environmental organizations, meanwhile, charged that the plan didn't go far enough to protect fish.

State Department of Water Resources Director Mark Cowin, in releasing the plan last week, noted that it is based on conditions as of March 1.

"We know we've had above-average precipitation in February and March that leads us to slightly better conditions than those contemplated as worst case in the plan we're putting forward," Cowin said, adding that precipitation in early April will be taken into consideration as water allocations are developed for SWP and CVP contractors.

"We hope to make any allocation changes by the third week of this month," he said. "Quickly coming to decisions about final water allocations for agriculture is important, so we can provide for the most robust (water) transfers market this year. We've heard loudly from water users and agencies that that's on the front burner now—to set the market, so to speak."

Irrigation water supplies from the state and federal water projects are currently set at zero for most customers and as low as 40 percent for the most senior water rights held by settlement and exchange contractors on the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers.

The plan noted that most of the water moved into storage in San Luis Reservoir in recent weeks is "available for all highest priority beneficial purposes, including providing for the most critical needs of agriculture, industry, manufacturing, fish and wildlife, environmental protection and municipalities."

Based on operational modeling, the plan's authors said, "It has been relatively wet recently—more precipitation has occurred than projected," suggesting allocations for water contractors could be further reviewed.

Between April 1 and 10, about 75,000 acre-feet was added to storage in San Luis Reservoir, and the reservoir stood at 51 percent of its historical average for the date. Among other key reservoirs, Shasta had reached 62 percent of average; Oroville, 65 percent; New Melones, 68 percent; while both Folsom and Don Pedro stood at 75 percent.

Merkley said late-season storms have added to the amount of water in storage, but the parsing of small increments of water and the uncertainties created by unreliable or non-existent supplies is highly disruptive to the state's food production systems.

"It remains clear that increased water storage capacity is urgently needed if California is to protect its residents, its environment and its economy from the shocks of drought and flood," Merkley said. "The drought operations plan may address immediate needs and legal requirements, but the state's economy cannot operate effectively if water supplies lurch from one extreme to the other."

Another concern addressed in the emergency plan is the amount of water needed to control saltwater intrusion into the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, a concern for delta farmers.

State and federal agencies said they continue to review the possibility of installing temporary rock barriers across three delta waterways. The agencies said with barriers in place, releases from Shasta, Oroville and other reservoirs would repel saltwater and protect the delta.

If the option is exercised, barriers would be completed by early June, but officials said they will delay a decision as long as possible.

Meanwhile, efforts continue to pass federal legislation to fund water storage and offset some of the economic hardships caused by the drought. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., has modified her California Emergency Drought Relief Act, saying that to address Republican concerns, she had trimmed about $300 million in spending from the proposed legislation. Feinstein said she needs 60 votes to move the bill through the Senate.

Pointing to estimates of land fallowing and agricultural job losses caused by water shortages, Feinstein said food prices across the U.S. will increase.

"This is an emergency, and this bill deserves a vote," she said.

The complete Central Valley Project and State Water Project Drought Operations Plan and Operational Forecast is online at

(Kate Campbell 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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