Fresno Bee Newsroom Blog

Federal water cutback called ‘crippling blow’

The federal government reduced irrigation water projections for west San Joaquin Valley farmers last week — only the third time I remember it ever happening.

The 5% cutback — from a 25% water allocation to 20% — has been called a crippling blow to agriculture

The cutback has resulted from a below-average winter, the second in a row. Plus, the state and federal water projects were forced to curb water pumping at the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta to protect dwindling delta smelt.

Some 800,000 acre-feet of water were lost in the process.

You can imagine the strong feelings when the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation dropped its forecast last week.

“The water supply reductions facing farmers will devastate the local communities,” said Thomas Birmingham, general manager of 600,000-acre Westlands Water District, the largest customer on the Central Valley Project.

After I passed along his sentiment on Twitter, a water analyst, known as @flowinguphill, tweeted: “Westlands no longer mentions Mendota — the center of the 110,000 plus acres of retired land in the district.”

The implication is that communities are harmed by farming on some marginal land that must eventually be taken out of service because of salt contamination. There is a long-running argument about the wisdom of farming the west side.

Setting aside the back-and-forth, it is likely to be a very tough summer for agriculture, rural communities and the Valley as a whole. A water crisis here usually results in thousands of acres being idled, people losing jobs, the economy suffering.

The Sierra snowpack, a frozen reservoir providing more than 60% of the state’s water, is at 55% of average. You can understand the caution from the federal government.

But the large Northern California reservoirs are still slightly above average.  It galls farmers to see the 5% cutback when those reservoirs appear full enough to tap for shortfalls in the Central Valley.

Farmers I know on the west side have been looking to buy from other water suppliers and get their groundwater wells ready for a summer of pumping.

On the Valley’s east side, the Friant section of the Central Valley Project has not yet been cut back from its 65% of the highest-priority water from Millerton Lake. But that could change, too.

Dry months hurt, but a few storms could make us forget

Remember those stories last week about a record-setting, scary-sounding dry spell for the combined months of  January and February? You’ll forget all about them if we see a series of storms this month and next.

The record dry time is actually in the Northern Sierra, the most important watershed in the state, as my Sacramento Bee colleague Matt Weiser wrote. That snowpack melts into the state’s biggest reservoirs.

At the federal pumps near Tracy in the south delta.

But the Northern Sierra is actually in better shape than it was at this time last year. So is the Southern Sierra. The snow from the big storms in November and December is mostly still up there. It hasn’t melted.

The huge reservoirs in Northern California — Shasta, Oroville, Trinity — are all holding an above-average amount of water right now. We’re not hearing anything yet about water restrictions in the Bay Area.

The real concern is San Luis in western Merced County, where west San Joaquin Valley farmers get water.

It is not a mountain reservoir. It does not have a big, natural stream, unlike the reservoirs I’ve mentioned. It is one of the larger off-stream reservoirs you will find anywhere in the United States.

So, water must be pumped into San Luis from the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, 120 miles away. The delta pumping has been limited to protect the dwindling delta smelt. So it San Luis only at 69% of average right now.

The reservoir is 2 million acre-feet — about four times bigger than Millerton Lake, though it’s not all devoted to the Central Valley Project. The state stores water there, too.

Many experts tell me they don’t think it will fill.

There are bigger questions now, because pumping for San Luis usually continues well into the warm season to provide water. To provide enough water, the reservoir needs to get continuous pumping from the delta in spring.

What if the weather stays dry? What if the pumping restrictions continue at the delta? How much water will be available  in May and June when the thermometer starts to climb?

Should farmers fallow a lot of acreage? Should they drill new wells and keep pulling water from the ground?

West-side Valley farm water already lagging

Farm water analysts on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley are less than optimistic about the water supply for next summer despite a good snowpack so far this year.

West  siders suspect a key Valley reservoir won’t fill up this year, due to water pumping restrictions that protect dying fish in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta.

It’s a familiar refrain. For years, west siders have been making the point about fish protections reducing irrigation deliveries. This year, the farm-water analysts are projecting 40% to 55% of contractual allotments even if the Sierra gets all the snow it usually gets.

The projection comes from the San Luis & Delta-Mendota Water Authority, representing west Valley farmers on the federal Central Valley Project. Among those farmers are Westlands Water District growers.

Here’s how the water delivery works: Water flows from Northern California rivers through the delta to the huge pumps near Tracy in the south delta. The water is pumped south — which is uphill, by the way — to San Luis Reservoir in western Merced County.

To fill San Luis, a steady flow of pumped water continues through the winter. When the water is interrupted, it’s tough to catch up with the loss of pumping.

Salmon and delta smelts sometimes are nearby, so pumping must be slowed or stopped to prevent them from being dragged into the pumps and killed.

Analysts say the restricted pumping in December equates to about a 10% reduction in available farm water supply. The situation may not get any better this month or next month if the fish are still exposed to the danger.

And if the winter suddenly turns dry — as it sometimes does in California — the projection of available water would drop to somewhere between 35% and 40%, according to the authority.