West Side farmers await water after Schwarzenegger's drought declaration

rowers waiting to hear details of relief

06/14/2008 4:41 AM

10/20/2014 11:26 AM

PATTERSON -- Out here where the drought is especially bad, farmers wait to see if the governor really can move water.

The Del Puerto Water District, serving 45,000 acres along Interstate 5, could be one of the biggest beneficiaries of Gov. Schwarzenegger's emergency orders this week.

The district relies entirely on water from the federal Central Valley Project, but only 40 percent of the contracted amount is available this year. The governor's orders could result in water from elsewhere boosting the supply for Del Puerto's 170 farms, stretching from Vernalis to Santa Nella.

"We're hopeful it will provide us with some modicum of relief for our situation here, which has become very dire," General Manager Bill Harrison said Friday.

The details, including the sources of the water, the means of conveyance and the price charged by the sellers, are not known, but Harrison said he hopes to learn more next week.

Other West Side districts are in somewhat better shape because of their rights to tap the San Joaquin River, as well as their access to ground- water.

To the east, the Modesto, Turlock and Oakdale irrigation districts have even more control over their fates, thanks to strong rights to the Tuolumne and Stanislaus rivers.

Still, there's concern in this dry year, as shown in the cap the TID has placed on water deliveries to farmers. Although not nearly as draconian as the federal cuts, the TID cap is expected to affect about a quarter of its customers, including dairy farmers trying to grow a second feed crop this year.

The drought has hit hard at the Central Valley Project because it pumps water from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. Even in wet years, the supply is restricted to protect salmon and other fish.

Schwarzenegger ordered water officials to look for ways to move more water from the relatively wetter northern part of the state to farms in need, mainly in the western part of the San Joaquin Valley.

"If we don't get water to them immediately, the results will be devastating," he said.

Environmentalists promptly found fault with the plan. It is "simply a rush to do something without the procedural safeguards to ensure environmental and public health," said Bill Jennings, executive director of the California Sportfishing Protection Alliance.

The plan includes increased groundwater pumping but requires that the water be of "appropriate quality."

"I don't know how many of those wells will qualify," said Sarah Woolf, spokeswoman for the Westlands Water District, west of Fresno. "We will be able to fill in some of that gap, (but) I don't think it will be huge."

Harrison said extra water might come, for example, from a farmer in the northern part of the state who has rights to the river flowing by his property. He would let it keep flowing to the delta and beyond this summer and instead use groundwater, if the price paid by the downstream user is high enough.

Harrison said the price will be much more than the $45 per acre-foot that Del Puerto customers pay. An acre-foot is enough water to cover one acre of land 1 foot deep.

The low federal allotment could mean a sharp reduction in annual field crops on the West Side. Tree crops also could produce less, although the Almond Board of California is reporting on research that found that irrigation reductions might not hurt so much if they are well-timed.

Bee staff writer John Holland can be reached at jholland@modbee.com or 578-2385.

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