Spring storms yield modest rise in water supplies


Issue Date: April 23, 2014
By Kate Campbell

Although the outlook for agricultural water supplies remains dismal in much of the Central Valley, officials announced some increases last week that will improve supplies in certain regions and may provide flexibility for water transfers.

Storms at the end of March provided the supply improvements, but water officials said the year still ranks among the five driest in California history.

The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation said Sacramento River settlement contractors and wildlife refuges north of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta will see supplies increased from 40 percent to the contract minimum of 75 percent.

David Murillo, Bureau of Reclamation regional director, said the agency has been working with the Sacramento River contractors to shift flow schedules, in order to meet water temperature targets for fisheries in the river. Deliveries will be shifted to June, July and August, when temperatures are hot.

Thad Bettner, Glenn-Colusa Irrigation District manager, said the increased deliveries will allow adding 50,000 acres of farmland back into production in the district, but he said 40,000 farm acres will continue to be fallowed.

Allocations for all other Central Valley Project water contractors will remain the same, Murillo said.

Customers served by the State Water Project will see their zero water allocation increase to 5 percent—an estimated 200,000 acre-feet of water—although that supply cannot be tapped until after Sept. 1. Water managers said they're trying to hold the water level in San Luis Reservoir above the pumps that move water to the Santa Clara Valley, to protect water quality and ensure water availability.

"While it's good news that some farmers will see modest increases in water supplies, it's important to remember that most customers of the federal and state water projects will receive little or no water from the projects," said California Farm Bureau President Paul Wenger, who predicted that water shortages will reduce food production in California this summer and lead to higher food prices.

"We must continue to work for long-term solutions that include additional water storage, so we can capture more rainfall and snowmelt when it's available," Wenger said.

The state project's 5 percent supply increase will translate to about 50,000 acre-feet of water for customers in Kern County. Even with the allocation increase from zero, Kern County still must pay for 933,594 acre-feet of water it will not receive this year. It and other SWP contractors must pay all contract costs, regardless of whether any water is delivered, and pay additional costs, such as transportation, for any water received.

This year, SWP water entities in Kern County will pay $69 million for water they will not get.

Saying every acre-foot of water is critical to county residents, businesses and farms, Kern County Water Agency General Manager Jim Beck said, "Even with the increased allocation, we are in a very difficult situation because our groundwater reserves are being depleted. Our growers are facing unbelievable financial hardships."

State Water Contractors General Manager Terry Erlewine said the additional water from the state project "only amounts to the bare minimum of what is needed to ensure the most at-risk districts don't run out of water, and gives all agencies some increased flexibility for water management." Erlewine said the water supply outlook "remains bleak."

Left out of the supply increases are federal water project contractors south of the delta, whose allocations remain at zero. For San Joaquin River exchange contractors, who have senior rights to river water, the allocation remains at 40 percent.

After last week's announcement, San Joaquin Valley water agencies that depend on supplies delivered through the CVP sent an urgent letter to state and federal officials, requesting a modest supply increase.

"Even in a critically dry water year like this one, Reclamation is obligated to provide the Exchange Contractors 650,000 acre-feet of reduced substitute supply (75 percent of full supply)," contractors said in a joint letter from the Friant Water Authority, San Luis & Delta-Mendota Water Authority and San Joaquin Water Authority.

"At this point, the Exchange Contractors are short of receiving their entire reduced supply by approximately 60,000 acre-feet, which includes receiving about 200,000 acre-feet from the San Joaquin River," the agencies said.

Pumping an additional 300,000 acre-feet of water from the delta would meet the obligation to the exchange contractors and keep thousands of acres of crops in the San Joaquin Valley alive, the agencies said, adding that undertaking that action would avoid contentious legal discussions.

During March and so far in April, about 410,000 acre-feet of water has been transferred from the delta into San Luis Reservoir. Flows from a series of storms in the past six weeks have allowed for increased pumping levels while causing minimal impact on protected fisheries.

Water storage in San Luis stands at about 50 percent of the historical average and other large reservoirs are about two-thirds of average, but snowpack remains below 30 percent of average.

State water managers said there's enough water in the system to defer installing rock salinity barriers at three points in the delta to protect freshwater supplies. They said the state will complete the permit process for the barriers, in case the salinity-control action is needed later in the year.

(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.