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CVP water supplies to remain constricted

Issue Date: April 6, 2016
By Kate Campbell
Winter precipitation has transformed the appearance of Shasta Lake. Photo on left shows the lake on Jan. 10, 2014; photo on right was taken on March 27 of this year. Improved reservoir storage has helped water supplies for many, but farmers south of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta learned last week they can still expect only 5 percent of contract supplies from the federal Central Valley Project.
Photos/Cheri Harrison
In this March 30 photo, Shasta Lake stands 18 feet from its crest, with more than 4 million acre-feet of water. Although Shasta had reached 88 percent of capacity, San Luis Reservoir to the south remained only half full, constricting supplies for many San Joaquin Valley farmers.
Photo/Sherl Harral, U.S. Bureau of Reclamation

Severely limited irrigation water supplies for many San Joaquin Valley farmers will continue during the 2016 growing season, based on a 5 percent federal water allocation. Up from zero in 2014 and 2015, the meager supply estimate for Westside growers this crop year holds little promise for increased food supplies in one of the world's most productive agricultural regions.

The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which operates the Central Valley Project, cited the combined effect of four years of drought, lack of available water at the beginning of the 2016 water year, requirements for in-delta water quality standards and pumping restrictions to protect endangered fish species for the lack of stored agricultural water that can be allocated to customers south of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

San Luis Reservoir, a shared federal-state facility that plays a key role in south-of-delta supplies, remains at about half of its 2 million acre-foot capacity, only slightly more water than last October when the official water year ended.

Representatives of farmers who rely on the CVP criticized the system's managers for not storing more water from runoff spawned by strong winter storms.

"We haven't been able to operate our existing system to take best advantage of storms when they arrive, which leaves us even more vulnerable to the next dry year," California Farm Bureau Federation President Paul Wenger said. "One thing is clear: What's happening now isn't working for fish and it isn't working for people."

Wenger said Farm Bureau will continue to press for "improved flexibility in both our water system and the regulations that govern it."

USBR officials confirmed this week that federal water storage in San Luis Reservoir, which is used to supply agricultural contractors south of the delta, stands at about 411,000 acre-feet. Of that amount, water experts estimated that 250,000 acre-feet of water is privately owned and not available for contract supply. That leaves about 160,000 acre-feet available for all federal contractors, including agricultural water districts.

In times of critical shortage, municipal and industrial users receive first priority. In addition, the bureau borrowed about 250,000 acre-feet of water from the state in 2015 to help protect fisheries and provide priority water to municipal and industrial contractors south of the delta. Payback of "loaned" water from the state last year will be made incrementally as adequate supplies are available.

Officials cited pumping restrictions to protect salmon and delta smelt during the 2015-16 water year for the current lack of stored water.

"While we are on track for near-average precipitation this year, the ongoing and residual impacts of the multi-year drought continue," USBR Mid-Pacific Regional Director David Murillo said. "As the water year progresses, changes in hydrology and opportunities to deliver additional water will influence future allocations."

Improved precipitation during the just-concluded winter did improve allocations for other CVP customers. North-of-delta water users will receive 100 percent of contract amount, as will San Joaquin River Exchange and Settlement contractors and wildlife refuges. Contractors in the CVP Friant Division, which serves the eastern side of the San Joaquin Valley, had learned last month that they will have 30 percent of Class 1 supplies, compared to zero the previous two years.

But the 5 percent allocation for Westside farmers earned widespread criticism, given the strong runoff through the delta system this winter.

Fresno County Farm Bureau CEO Ryan Jacobsen said the allocation illustrated "the degree of mismanagement and inconsistency by the federal government in operating the Central Valley Project," noting if the pumps that help transfer water from the delta had been operated at higher capacity during the extreme flood flows this winter, as much as 800,000 acre-feet of water would now be in storage in the federal portion of San Luis.

"Reservoirs throughout the state have been filling," Jacobsen said. "However, the government's restrictive interpretations (of the federal Endangered Species Act and court decisions) have resulted in the permanent loss of water that should have been stored. This absurdity cannot continue."

The Westlands Water District, which serves Westside farmers, said a "big gulp, little sip" strategy is needed to make the California water supply system work, taking advantage of periods of high flow so additional water can be left in the delta during dry times.

"If the first three months of 2016 were not a time when a 'big gulp' could be taken, there will not exist such a time," the district said. "Tragically, the current federal policy, which wasted more than 250 billion gallons of water into the ocean in January, February and March, has failed to protect the species while simultaneously allowing the health of the delta to rapidly decline."

Western Growers President and CEO Tom Nassif said the federal government had "very deliberately chosen to deny available relief to thousands of Californians in the San Joaquin Valley."

CFBF President Wenger said the continued, severe water restrictions for Central Valley farmers show the chronic inadequacy of California's water system.

"We'll never know how much water might have been available this summer, if we had captured more of the water that flowed to sea at the height of the El Niño storm surges," he said. "That lost opportunity will haunt rural California throughout the summer."

Wenger also noted farmers continue to squeeze more crop production from every gallon of water, but that the same efficiency standards aren't required for water dedicated to fishery uses.

"California needs to add flexibility to its current water system," he said, "while acting to expand the system through additional water storage, water recycling, desalination and continued enhancement of water efficiency."

(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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