Regulations, dry spell squeeze water supply

Issue Date: March 6, 2013
By Kate Campbell
Patterson farmer Matt Maring checks his water system to make sure its ready to operate at maximum efficiency due to extremely tight water supplies, especially for growers south of the delta who rely on federal water deliveries from the Central Valley Project.
Photo/Kate Campbell
Patterson farmer Matt Maring and son Ben survey row crop ground ready for planting, but an initial federal water allocation of 25 percent of contract amount means some of Maring’s fields may go unplanted.
Photo/Kate Campbell

Surrounded by almond trees in full bloom, farmer Matt Maring of Patterson checks his orchard's drip irrigation system and mentally performs complex math equations. He hardly looks up to enjoy the annual blossom display, focused instead on the growing water crisis and finding ways to keep his trees alive.

Along with the driest January-February in recorded state history and Sierra snowpack levels at 66 percent of average, the federal Central Valley Project and the State Water Project have been restricted from pumping water for storage and use south of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta to protect threatened species such as the delta smelt.

The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which operates the Central Valley Project, has announced an initial farm water allocation for the 2013 growing season of only 25 percent of contract amount for farm customers south of the delta.

Maring, who is one of those farmers, now must figure out how to spread fractions of the water he needs to places it will do the most good. He'll get just 9 inches per acre of water from the Del Puerto Water District—when it takes about 36 inches to produce many crops, including almonds.

Across the road from his almond orchard, Maring has prepared land to plant processing tomatoes, but isn't sure how much of the land—if any—he'll be able to plant this season.

"In the federal water districts on the west side, I think a lot of row crops will be left out," he said. "Here in Patterson, Del Puerto Water District gets federal project water and that's where I have problems."

Without adequate, reliable water supplies, he has to make hard choices, such as how much land has to be fallowed and which crops to plant because they use the least amount of water or promise to bring the best price.

"It's so dry, everybody needs to start irrigating," said Maring, who is a Stanislaus County Farm Bureau director.

He noted Turlock Irrigation District directors voted last week to start releasing irrigation water now. The district relies on water from the Tuolumne River and groundwater wells and said it is capping supplies to farmers at 30 inches per acre, matching the district's lowest-ever allocation. Officials also say groundwater pumping has been cut in half to protect aquifers.

"The farming community will suffer this year with this little amount of water, and farmers are being asked to make considerable sacrifices," said Michelle Reimers, TID public information manger. "Dry periods like this are stark reminders of the state's need for increased water storage to improve reliability and flexibility."

Calling the 25 percent of federal contract allocation "disappointing," Westlands Water District general manager Tom Birmingham said last week that the ability to move water across the delta has been hindered by actions to reduce water transfers, in an effort to protect delta smelt and other species under the Endangered Species Act. Together, he said, the CVP and SWP have lost more than 815,000 acre-feet of water that otherwise would have gone into storage because of pumping restrictions.

"This precious water cannot be replaced regardless of what happens in terms of precipitation and runoff for the rest of this year," Birmingham said.

Mike Wade of the California Farm Water Coalition said the reduced irrigation supply from the CVP "really is the result of the Endangered Species Act and not due to the drought, at least not right now."

He noted that California reservoirs hold more than 7 million acre-feet of water in storage.

"We have a lot of water carried over," Wade said, blaming water shortages on scientific interpretations by federal agencies, known as biological opinions, that he said unreasonably restrict water transfer activities and "put us in the position we're in today."

Farther south in the San Joaquin Valley, diversified farmer Mike Young said Kern County farmers will be relying a lot more on groundwater to make it through to harvest.

"Unfortunately, we've been relying on groundwater for the past four or five years, and we're seeing wells dry up and we're seeing the quality of water degrade as more groundwater is used, which has an adverse effect on the crops and the soils," Young said. "People in our area are fallowing ground because the water isn't there.

"Overall, the big picture is not pretty," Young said. "It's frightening, in fact. There's going to be an economic impact valley-wide because of this drought."

The U.S. Seasonal Drought Outlook through May, issued by the federal Climate Prediction Center, shows intense drought continuing through the western half of the country, spreading to include all of California in its grip, without any signs of meaningful relief. The outlook forecasts drought developing in the Sacramento Valley and in coastal growing areas, as well.

North of the delta, water supplies appear more stable, with an initial federal water allocation of 75 percent. However, Butte County Farm Bureau President Stacy Gore said farmers in the Sacramento Valley deal with a patchwork of water rights and supply forecasts.

"There are a lot of different water rights in the Sacramento Valley," Gore said. "It depends on the water district you're in how bad the reduction in contract water stings."

In some areas, farmers could be looking at reductions of 50 percent or more, depending on the rights they hold, access to groundwater and varying deliveries through canal systems.

"Our groundwater appears to be where it should be normally," Gore said. "It's probably OK. Our groundwater is driven by snowmelt and, as long as we have decent snowpack, we have water in our aquifer."

He said farmers in the Sacramento Valley have worked to make irrigation water available for transfer south of the delta through conjunctive-use agreements, but without the ability to pump it south, he said he's not aware of water sales being completed. In the past, the state Department of Water Resources has worked to facilitate transfers, however, inflexibilities in the ESA have tied agencies' hands.

(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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