Rainy Weather Allows Calif. to Increase Deliveries to Some Farms

By Debra Kahn, E&E reporter
4/22/2014 10:25:18 AM

Wet weather has allowed California to slightly increase the amount of water it will deliver to farmers grappling with drought, officials announced last week.

Based on precipitation through January, state and federal officials had predicted most agricultural water users would receive no water from the massive systems of pumps and canals that take supplies from the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta. The rivers supply 25 million Californians and 3 million acres of farmland.

But rain and snow since then have given the state enough of a respite that officials project they will be able to give customers of the State Water Project about 200,000 acre-feet of the 4 million acre-feet they normally expect to receive. The SWP supplies water to 29 public agencies that serve nearly a million acres of farms in addition to 25 million people.

"This is all a bit of good news in an otherwise very bleak water year," said Mark Cowin, director of the state Department of Water Resources, during a call Friday with reporters.

He said, though, that the practical effects of the 5 percent increase would be limited. "I don't expect this to make a tremendous amount of difference to Californians," he said. "I would expect the major impact of this small amount of water provided for agriculture likely is a minor reduction in the amount of groundwater extraction that's occurring this year." An acre-foot is 325,851 gallons, or roughly the amount a family of four consumes in a year.

Cowin said the rains have brought California up from a potentially record-breaking drought to one that ranks as the third- or fourth-most severe since the state started keeping records. He urged communities to continue conserving water, in line with Gov. Jerry Brown's (D) call in January for a 20 percent voluntary reduction statewide.

Rainy day in San Francisco. Shot on Market Street. (Credit: Flickr/Taneel Teemusk)

"We will continue to see more calls for water use restrictions throughout urban areas in the state," he said. "We expect those to become more and more severe over the course of the summer."

Agencies will be able to take the new water out of the system starting in September, in order to leave enough water for urban users that depend on reservoirs through the summer. Until then, they will have to depend on groundwater, water sales and any unused supplies left over from last year's allocation, in addition to existing supplies for drinking water, sanitation and other basic services.

The federal government, which operates the Central Valley Project (CVP), is also increasing allocations for some Sacramento River customers and wildlife refuges. Senior water rights holders will see their supplies increased from 40 percent to 75 percent of their normal deliveries, the minimum allocation normally provided for in their contracts.

"The low initial allocation announced on Feb. 21 has been difficult for all CVP contractors; however, with the recent precipitation, it is with some optimism that we are able to increase the available supply for these two entities," said David Murillo, mid-Pacific regional director for the Bureau of Reclamation.

Recipients of the water welcomed the news but cautioned that conditions are still dire. Key reservoirs for both state and federal projects are at about two-thirds of average capacity for this time of year, and snowpack water content is at less than a quarter of its normal level.

"[T]oday's increased allocation will help temper some of the most severe impacts of the drought," said Terry Erlewine, general manager of the State Water Contractors, whose members deliver water to more than 26 million people and 750,000 acres of farmland. "This additional water 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."

Other contractors that are lower on the water rights totem pole are hoping to receive increased allocations as soon as this week.

"Unfortunately, some of our growers are having to make decisions on trying to keep their trees alive now or letting some orchards go dry to use very limited supplies to keep other orchards alive," said Ronald Jacobsma, general manager of the Friant Water Authority, which provides irrigation for more than a million acres on the eastern side of the San Joaquin Valley and is still facing a zero allocation.

The state will also hold off on plans to install temporary barriers that would keep salt water out of the delta, in lieu of flows from upstream tributaries that normally keep the estuary fresh.

Environmental groups and delta residents had dreaded the barriers because they would also harm water quality in the northern part of the delta, which provides supplies to area farmers and migrating fish.

Barriers were necessary in the historic drought of 1976-77. This time, the state plans to avoid barriers by moving a measuring point for salinity further upriver in order to ease water quality standards for the delta. That move requires the sign-off of the State Water Resources Control Board.

"This change would continue to ensure adequate salinity controls within the Delta and enables more flexible use of reservoir supplies for purposes other than outflow to the Pacific Ocean," the state said in a news release.

Reprinted from ClimateWire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC. 202-628-6500.

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