FRESNO — Capping weeks of political debate over the water-starved west valley, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar on Friday personally delivered the farm-water forecast — a 5 percent allotment, and up to 30 percent if storms keep coming.
The rollout, usually made by lower-level officials in Sacramento, seemed to satisfy Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who now will delay legislation that would override fish protections and provide farmers more water.
But farmers said they were not convinced officials would provide any more than the federal Central Valley Project delivered last year.
Farmers only received 10 percent of what they could get under long-standing contracts, which resulted in barren fields and a skyrocketing unemployment rate.
The situation is not so dire in some parts of the valley, including the areas served by the Modesto, Turlock and Oakdale irrigation districts.
The MID, TID and OID draw from San Joaquin River tributaries, so they are less affected by delta fish protections.
Still, they could lose some of their water via state and federal decisions aimed at protecting the lower San Joaquin.
Feinstein and other California lawmakers have pressured the Interior Department for weeks for a 40 percent water allotment. She was pleased after Salazar said his department will work on adding another 10 percent to the allotment from other sources, including water from San Joaquin River restoration and the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California.
"For the first time in three years, we're hopeful there's help on the way for drought-stricken farmers," Salazar said.
The forecast is important because farmers use it to plan their production for the summer. Northern California farmers and some cities also will face cutbacks this year if the weather turns dry. Wildlife refuges will get full deliveries.
Environmentalists and fishing representatives applauded the forecast, but farmers and San Joaquin Valley water officials found little comfort in it.
Todd Allen, a third-generation farmer in the Firebaugh area, said he distrusted the federal government and already planned for a zero allocation — the forecast federal officials made last year.
"I am really disgusted by all the politicians' promises," he said. "I am the one caught in the crossfire, and I feel like I am being punished when I haven't done anything wrong."
Officials at Westlands Water District, the largest federal water customer on the project, say they will immediately ask the Interior Department to discard the 5 percent possibility and opt for a 30 percent allocation, so farmers can put more acreage back into production.
In the past, federal officials have increased allotments by April 1 as the precipitation season produces a bigger snowpack, but that's too long to wait, Westlands officials said.
Water conditions in the state already support 30 percent deliveries, said district spokeswoman Sarah Woolf. The storage in the largest federal reservoir, Shasta in Northern California, is average for this time of year, erasing some of the deficit from the three-year drought.
"A 30 percent allocation will put people back to work immediately," she said. "And it means a positive economic return to the state."
Two congressmen who represent portions of the west side — Democratic Reps. Dennis Cardoza of Merced and Jim Costa of Fresno — praised Salazar for a good-faith effort, but both cautioned that simple optimism isn't enough.
"If the weather cooperates, the possible 40 percent water supply allocation is good news," Costa said. "The big 'if' is whether or not the Department of Interior will do everything in their power to provide it."
Cardoza added that farmers "cannot take 5 percent to the bank and expect to receive financing to plant their crops."
Environmentalists and fishing representatives said the forecast seemed fair, adding that most customers are getting all of their contractual allotments.
Said Earthjustice lawyer Trent Orr: "There is a very carefully balanced water distribution plan in place to deliver water to cities and agricultural operations while keeping enough in the natural waterways to prevent the destruction of our salmon and other native fish."
Bee Washington Bureau reporter Michael Doyle and Fresno Bee staff writer Robert Rodriguez contributed to this report.