Fresno Bee Newsroom Blog

State resources leader told people in small towns need help during drought

When John Laird, secretary for the California Natural Resources Agency, comes to Fresno these days, people want to talk with him about water.  Specifically, the lack of it.

Community Food Bank provided food for Mendota in 2009.

He met this week with the Latino Water Coalition to chat about the Bay Delta Conservation Plan — the one with the twin tunnels — the final draft of which will hit the streets Dec. 13.

The plan looks decades ahead to cure California’s water and ecosystem problems. It involves billions of dollars and construction of two tunnels to avoid pumping water directly from the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta.

But the Latino Water Coalition seemed just as interested in the short term, meaning next year. What if there is a dry winter? People in small west San Joaquin Valley towns could suffer as they did in a dry 2009, members said.

In west-side cities with high unemployment, food lines are not unusual. But the lines were much longer in 2009. The coalition said nobody in state government prepared for the problem.

Said Gary Serrato, general manager of the Fresno Irrigation District, “We should be preparing now to help Mendota and Firebaugh next year in case we have a dry winter.”

Laird said he would take the message back to Sacramento. He said both long- and short-term issues need to be addressed.

Meanwhile, farmers, water districts, cities and industries are worried in Central California. Not a drop of November rain has hit the rain gauge in Fresno yet.

“We will wind up idling close to 50% of our land next year if it continues to be dry,” said west-side farmer Joel Del Bosque.

Fight for west-side water on display this week

West San Joaquin Valley water battles are leaping onto the big screen and into the sports world this week — both under the heading of “The fight for water.”

On Thursday, Olympic boxer Jose Ramirez, who is from the west-side community of Avenal, will talk about his first professional fight in the Valley, on Nov. 9 at West Hills College in Lemoore.

He is expected to say he wants it to make a statement about the hardship of west-side farm water shortages, calling it “The fight for water.” His news conference is scheduled at noon Thursday in the Sierra Athletic Club.

On Saturday, an award-winning documentary, “The fight for water: a farm worker struggle,” will screen at 6 p.m. at the Tower Theatre in Fresno.

The film, produced by Juan Carlos Oseguera, features a 2009 water march by growers and farm workers.  The Latino Water Coalition is a central player in the march.

Delta Plan is a set of rules for long-term restoration

Readers emailed to clarify a point in my Delta Water Summit story, which referred to seven lawsuits over the Delta Plan that was approved by the Delta Stewardship Council on May 16.

The Delta Plan is not a draft of the Bay Delta Conservation Plan. The Delta Plan, required in 2009 by the state Legislature, contains rules for the longer-term approach or framework for managing the sensitive Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta.

Like the BDCP, it aims to restore the delta and make more reliable water deliveries to farms and cities. Both have been working toward proposed solutions for years in response to continuing ecological delta damage and unreliable water deliveries.

Seven lawsuits were filed against the Delta Plan from many sides on the delta’s issues. The plaintiffs include environmental groups, commercial fishermen, water diverters and local governments.

The BDCP draft should be available for public comment in October, state leaders say.

Bay Delta Conservation Plan more than tunnels, state leader says

I listened to the state’s top water leader talk for an hour Thursday about the Bay Delta Conservation Plan. Then I tried to check some of his data online.

The download of so many documents crashed my computer. Let’s just go straight to the talk at The Fresno Bee editorial board meeting, which did not break any news.

Mark Cowin, director of the state’s Department of Water Resources, said the controversial plan is more than tunnels and arguments. Nonetheless, he had to spend time explaining the two huge water tunnels being proposed at the sensitive Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta.

The tunnel idea is to move Sacramento River water south in tunnels so the water doesn’t pass through the delta. The idea is the epic issue for California natural resources these days, easily on a par with the Peripheral Canal fight I covered 30 years ago.

Some Northern Californians have told me it’s simply a water grab for Central Valley farmers and Southern California. The delta’s ecosystem and Northern California will suffer, they say.

Some farmers and Southern Californians argue it would give the state a more certain water supply. Plus, the delta would get the chance to heal, they say.

Cowin said he supports the $25 billion tunnels, but the plan is equally about restoring the faltering delta.

He and Karla Nemeth, outreach and communications manager, said saving the delta’s dying fish species and declining habitat is a linchpin of the plan. They mentioned such projects as rebuilding flood plains and fattening up migrating salmon.

We asked tunnel questions, such as: How much difference would the tunnels have made for west Valley farmers who lost water this year in environmental cutbacks for the threatened delta smelt?

Cowin and Nemeth said the tunnels probably would have resulted in about 700,000 acre-feet of additional water.

The draft of this plan should be available in the next few months, they said. I’m not sure that will give you enough time to read the 27,000 pages of documents related to it.

Extra water for Westlands actually more than twice cost reported

Westlands Water District farmers will buy some precious river water from Oakdale Irrigation District in Stanislaus County at $128 per acre-foot, a recent news story reported.

But that’s not what Westlands farmers will pay, says a local water engineer. That’s how much Oakdale Irrigation will get.

The bill for Westlands farmers will be more like $350 to $375 per acre-foot. There are a number of additional costs to get the water to Westlands through the vast canal system in California.

But that’s a cost of doing business this dry year. Farmers are in the grip of a second consecutive dry year and suffering water cutbacks for threatened fish species . Westlands will get only 20% of its contractual allotment from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.

What would farmers pay for the contractual water? It’s $48.50 per acre-foot. But with additional delivery costs and fees, farmers pay closer to $129.

Clearly, they are forced to pay much bigger prices in a year like this.

In the Oakdale Irrigation District deal, Westlands will buy 40,000 acre-feet of Stanislaus River water if it’s available. At $350 per acre-foot, farmers would spend $14 million.

That won’t come close to covering the shortfall in Westlands, where the contractual allotment is more than 1.1 million acre-feet annually.

For those who were curious, one acre-foot of water is about 326,000 gallons of water, enough for an average Valley family for 12 to 18 months.

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.

Smelt numbers change slightly

After I wrote the Sunday story about the water pumps at the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, federal leaders tweaked their analysis of the delta smelt problem this winter.

The picture is still not good for this protected species, but it’s not quite as bad as it looked in early February. It might help keep the pumps running to provide water for farm and city customers later this year.

The federal analysis released last week says smelt deaths at the pumps  are actually only 64% of the total allowed for the year, not 76% as had been reported.

Two numbers had been adjusted since I first reported on the smelt. The number of fish allowed to die at the pumps was increased from 305 to 362. And the number of fish reported to have died at the pumps is now 230, not 232.

Irrigation vapor from Central Valley gives Colorado River big bump

Massive water vapor from farm irrigation in California’s Central Valley each year blows over the Sierra Nevada, pumps up rainfall over other states and adds 100 billion gallons of water to the Colorado River, new research shows.

The Colorado gets nearly a 30% bump in stream flow. That’s enough water to fill nearly two-thirds of Millerton Lake near Fresno.

The study, led by climate hydrologist Jay Famiglietti of the University of California at Irvine,  will be published Tuesday in the journal Geophysical Research Letters. This part of the water cycle has not been accurately described before, Famiglietti said.

If irrigation stopped in the Central Valley, there would be a decrease in the stream flow of the Colorado River basin — a supply of water that has been hotly contested for decades.

The Colorado River basin provides water to Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Phoenix and other cities. Nearly 35 million people, as well as more than 3 million acres of farmland, rely on the water.

The study says more than 12 million acres of farmland are irrigated in the Central Valley, which includes the Sacramento and San Joaquin valleys. As water evaporates into the air, it is caught by the wind and taken over the Sierra.

As it moves into the interior of the Southwest, the vapor feeds into the annual monsoon cycle that includes moisture from the Gulf of Mexico, Famiglietti said.

“Adding the moisture from the Central Valley makes storms wetter and more violent,” he said. “It’s like throwing fuel on a fire.”

He said climate computer models make it possible to isolate the contribution from the Central Valley. The research is an effort to account for as many weather influences as possible.

Famiglietti’s study says about 40% of the irrigation in the Central Valley comes from ground-water pumping, and that worries him.

He wonders what it will mean to the Colorado River If land must be taken out of production as the ground water is depleted.

“It raises questions about the future,” he said.

Delta smelt will be in Fresno court this week

A three-inch minnow again will be briefly in a spotlight this week in Fresno. A U.S. District judge is considering a three-year delay on rewriting the plan to protect the threatened delta smelt.

Here in federal court, the fish has been at the center of a years-long legal argument pitting the protection plan against water pumping for cities and farms.

Federal authorities are seeking the delay so they can focus on a broader effort that will protect the place where the smelt live.

I’ve been following the smelt issue since 1991 when federal wildlife authorities proposed it as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act. I’ll give you a short explanation of why you should care about the smelt case.

The fish lives only in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta in Northern California. The delta is where water pumping supplies millions of Californians with drinking water and 3 million acres of farmland with irrigation water.

When the smelt strays near the big pumps, it’s time to shut down pumping, which slows down the effort to fill San Luis Reservoir. The reservoir holds irrigation water for west San Joaquin Valley farming.

The pumps were shut down for a few weeks in December to protect the smelt. Farm water leaders here fear it will result in reduced irrigation deliveries this summer. That’s why you should care.

It’s just one corner of a story that has traveled through courts, fiery debates, scientific studies and grand political ideas to solve this clash. The process continues, and it’s a subject for another day.

The bigger point remains over the decades. California’s big rivers and fresh water are in the north. People are in the south. And a huge swath of lucrative farming is right in the middle.

It’s a statewide issue, and it affects the Valley’s biggest industry.

 

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.