Agriculture

Much of West Side gets 5 percent farm irrigation water allotment

Irrigation Season Starting in Stanislaus County

Stanislaus County Farmer Daniel Bays talk about the irrigation situation in the central valley while outside of Westley California on April 1, 2016. (John Westberg/jwestberg@modbee.com)
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Stanislaus County Farmer Daniel Bays talk about the irrigation situation in the central valley while outside of Westley California on April 1, 2016. (John Westberg/jwestberg@modbee.com)

The federal government on Friday announced 5 percent water allotments to many farmers in the western San Joaquin Valley, but others with senior rights will get 100 percent.

The 5 percent from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation is up from zero last year, the low point in the current drought. But it angered farming advocates who said managers should do a better job of distributing the runoff from winter storms.

“That lost opportunity will haunt rural California throughout the summer,” said Modesto-area nut grower Paul Wenger, president of the California Farm Bureau Federation, in a written statement.

The announcement involved extensive cropland served by the Central Valley Project with water pumped through the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. Fish protections have sharply reduced the supply even in years with average or better rain and snow.

The eastern part of the Valley, served mainly by reservoirs under local control, has bounced back somewhat with the recent storms but still has below-average storage. They include the Modesto, Turlock, Oakdale, South San Joaquin and Merced irrigation districts.

Friday’s federal announcement is tentative. The allotments could rise if spring is wet or fishery agencies relax the Delta pumping restrictions.

It is an unacceptable situation that has grown very complicated and appears to have no immediate resolution.

Anthea Hansen, Del Puerto Water District

The Del Puerto Water District, serving about 45,000 acres between Vernalis and Santa Nella, is among those getting just 5 percent of the water in their contracts.

“It is an unacceptable situation that has grown very complicated and appears to have no immediate resolution,” General Manager Anthea Hansen said in an email to growers. She also noted that the Delta rules have failed to improve the fishery.

Del Puerto and other hard-hit districts have increased their use of groundwater, if they have it, while fallowing lower-value crops and looking for water purchases from better-off areas.

The four districts getting 100 percent of their federal water hold rights to the San Joaquin River that predate construction of the CVP in the 1940s.

The largest of them, the Central California Irrigation District, serves about 143,000 acres in two blocks between Crows Landing and Mendota. The San Luis Canal Co. covers about 45,000 acres near Los Banos and Dos Palos. The Firebaugh Canal Water District and the Columbia Canal Co. combine for about 39,000 acres near Firebaugh and Mendota.

The federal agency also will provide 100 percent of the contracted water to national wildlife refuges along the San Joaquin River.

And the Sacramento Valley, which is not affected by the Delta pumps, will get full allotments thanks to increased storage in Shasta Lake and elsewhere. That region and its surrounding mountains got more rain and snow this winter than areas to the south.

Federal reservoirs as a whole have recovered to 86 percent of their average storage for this time of year, said Pablo Arroyave, deputy regional director of the Bureau of Reclamation. Storage is far lower in the southernmost reservoirs, New Melones and San Luis.

“We are basically, in our view, still in the middle of a drought,” Arroyave said.

New Melones will continue to provide water for the Oakdale and South San Joaquin irrigation districts, which have senior rights on the Stanislaus River.

Lester Snow, former secretary of the California Natural Resources Agency, urged caution about releasing too much stored water in the north, saying the south state remains in “extreme, exceptional” drought.

“Those reservoirs could be drained in a heartbeat,” Snow said. “It’s like we’re living paycheck to paycheck, meaning from rainy season to rainy season.”

The Westlands Water District, a vast expanse west of Fresno, is among those getting just 5 percent.

“It’s ridiculous, but unfortunately entirely predictable,” said Johnny Amaral, deputy general manager. “Life in the Central Valley can’t continue to operate this way.”

The Sacramento Bee contributed to this report.

John Holland: 209-578-2385

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