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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Responding to my Sunday story, a few readers contacted me to say sinking farmland isn’t new.
You’re right. I didn’t have a chance to write much history.
My story Sunday was about the sinking land around the San Joaquin River and how it would affect the replacement of Sack Dam. It’s contributing to delays in the restoration of the river.
But I’ve been writing occasionally about land subsidence on the San Joaquin Valley’s west side for the last 20 years, and I find it fascinating.
Here’s the first sentence of a story I wrote on Earth Day 2007:
“The land dipped 30 feet between 1925 and 1977 near Mendota — and it’s still going down in what the U.S. Geological Survey calls the largest human alteration of the Earth’s surface. Ever.”
Layers of soil beneath the land surface deflate as groundwater pumping continues. It’s responsible for millions of dollars in damage to irrigation canals. And it could threaten such landmarks as the California Aqueduct and Interstate 5.
You might have seen the famous photograph of a utility pole near Mendota. The 1977 photo features USGS scientist Joseph Poland, who discovered the sinking ground.
High above Poland’s head there are two small signs with the years 1955 and 1925, marking the level of the ground in those years. As you can see, it’s dramatic.
If you’re interested in tracking reservoir storage, river flows and the snow-water content in the Sierra, the state has a web site for you — California Data Exchange Center, known as CDEC.
I am particularly interested in the amount of water frozen in the snow. Water content gives you an idea of how much water can be expected next spring and summer when the snowpack melts.
About this time of year, I like to compare the snowpack at this point to the snowpack last year. You can do that at this page.
As of Nov. 21, the Sierra is about the same as it was last year. It is less than average, but most of the season is still ahead.
River flows become more important later in the wet season, but any time is a good time to look up reservoir levels. Reservoirs are the bank account of water from previous seasons. They’re still looking pretty good, even though last year was a little dry.
Follow CDEC, and you’ll have an idea of what farmers, hydroelectric projects and many industries are watching this winter in California.
It’s nearly Thanksgiving. The weather has been delightful. And the California water world is watching, waiting and hoping for pregnant storms from the Pacific.
Rain and snow are expected this weekend, so farmers and water managers may breathe a little easier for the holiday.
They know it’s early in the season. But their anxiety level will climb in the next six weeks if they don’t see stormy weather.
Here’s what’s rolling through their minds:
– The snowpack is puny, even this early in the season.
– The snow and rain season last year was far below average in many places, especially in the southern Sierra. They don’t want to see back-to-back dry years.
– Reservoirs, which were at or above average earlier this year, are still looking pretty good, but they’re starting to slip.
– El Nino — warm water in the Pacific that sometimes is a sign of wet times ahead in California – has fizzled. So the odds of a wet season have become a coin flip again.
Long-time water experts say they’re not really sweating it yet. Water engineer Lance Johnson of Shaver Lake has spent decades watching the weather, working on east- and west-Valley farm water supply and analyzing trends.
His comment: “Precipitation in the San Joaquin River watershed is currently just 34% of normal and just barely greater than 1977, the direst year on record. But it is too early in the water year to get overly concerned as a few good storms can turn that around.”