By Christine Souza
Assistant Editor, Ag Alert
Reprinted with permission from the California Farm Bureau Federation
With supplies curtailed from California’s largest water projects, farmers have been reducing acreage, water districts have been working to secure additional supplies, and everyone has been keeping an eye on the continued dispute between state and federal governments on managing the delta.
Carryover storage from a wet 2018-19 winter has eased the impact of this year’s reduced Sierra Nevada snowpack and the resulting partial supplies from the federal Central Valley Project and State Water Project.
“Farmers are thankful for the water they are getting, and part of the reason is storage: the system of reservoirs, canals and other conduits designed to take advantage of the plentiful times for use in the lean times,” California Farm Bureau Federation Senior Counsel Chris Scheuring said. “Since reservoirs were in good shape to start with, we were able to draw upon some of that supply.”
California Department of Water Resources spokesman Chris Orrock said plentiful snow last year and a good soaking of precipitation in December allowed the state to enter 2020 with a decent supply of water.
“We don’t want to see another dry year next year, but because we had such a good snowpack last year, we’re able to stand a dry year,” Orrock said.
As a result of storms this spring, agricultural customers of the CVP and SWP saw slight increases in water availability last month. The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which operates the CVP, increased allocations for agricultural customers south of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta to 20%, up from 15%. Water allocations in the CVP Friant Division also saw a 5% increase, to 60% of Class 1 water. SWP water contractors saw water supplies increase to 20%, up from 15%.
Westlands Water District public affairs representative Diana Giraldo said the district plans to purchase water to supplement the 20% CVP allocation. She said Westlands expects 160,000 acres within the district to be idled this year.
In Fresno County, Ramon Chavez, who farms in Westlands, said he is busy planting sweet corn and grows a variety of crops including processing tomatoes, garlic, lettuce, apples and almonds.
Regarding whether his portion of the district’s 20% allocation will last him through the season, Chavez said, “We’ll find out.”
Farmer Kole Upton of Chowchilla, who relies on water from the Chowchilla Water District and serves on the district board, said the increase for the CVP Friant Division will help.
“We did our calculations based on the 55%, so if we get a little bit more water, that’s great,” said Upton, who grows almonds, pistachios and field crops. “Maybe we can go a little longer.”
Upton said his field-crop ground gives him flexibility to idle land when water is short.
“There’s a certain amount of our ground that’s going to be basically fallowed during the summer,” he said, adding that many farmers are thinking ahead to impacts of the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act. “SGMA is going to be a tough one because if you can’t get surface water, you’re going to be idling land.”
The Kern County Water Agency, which buys water from the SWP, will be “using every available asset to help meet these shortages,” Water Resources Manager Holly Melton said.
“We’re very fortunate in Kern that our leaders had the foresight to establish groundwater banking programs and have been able to recharge water in wet conditions to meet future water needs during these dry conditions,” Melton said.
In the Sacramento Valley, “most water suppliers are in a pretty good place because we have good surface water storage and good groundwater storage,” Northern California Water Association President David Guy said.
On Monday, the Bureau of Reclamation notified Sacramento River settlement and San Joaquin River settlement and exchange contractors that inflow to Lake Shasta is now expected to be greater than 3.2 million acre-feet. That means those contractors should now expect 100% water supplies; in April, the bureau had reduced allocations to 75%, based on inflow projections.
Meanwhile, the federal water temperature plan for Lake Shasta sits stymied before the State Water Resources Control Board, after the board rejected the federal plan, saying the plan needed more data and modeling of cold-water scenarios involving cutbacks. The board gave the Bureau of Reclamation 20 days to provide the modeling data.
Guy said the temperature management plan also is the focus of litigation brought by the state and environmental groups over a new federal biological opinion for delta fish. In addition, the state water board said last week it would curtail water rights permit holders with Term 91 clauses—permits issued after 1965 that are junior to the CVP and SWP.
“It’s just crazy to me that people are talking about cutting water supplies to our economy right now, when we’re, as a state, scrambling to rebuild our economy,” Guy said.
Farm Bureau’s Scheuring said the state-federal policy dispute throws unneeded uncertainty into already-complicated delta management questions.
“When we have a tough, dry year like this one, adding state and federal policy infighting into the equation is absolutely a step in the wrong direction,” Scheuring said.
Elsewhere in the Central Valley, the Modesto and Turlock irrigation districts, which jointly operate Don Pedro Reservoir on the Tuolumne River, expect to provide full allocations to farmers this season, thanks again to good reservoir conditions.
“There wasn’t much snowfall, but the little bits of snow and rain that we’ve received have been very beneficial,” said Nick Blom, a Modesto-area farmer and MID board member. “We’ve got July to October, plus maybe one more (month), so farmers are looking at five more irrigations, which I think we’ll have plenty of water to do that.”
In Santa Barbara County, which has faced drought conditions for several years, winegrape grower Kevin Merrill said he’s thankful for average rainfall this year.
“We got some rain late in the spring, which caught us up a little bit,” said Merrill, who mostly relies on groundwater and serves on local groundwater sustainability agencies. “We are still facing the results of a multi-year drought, so it takes a while to recover.”
In general, Scheuring said, “farmers in most places are not getting full entitlements, but they’re getting enough to get by—and next year could be a whole different story if we have another dry year.”
The variability of annual precipitation, plus expected constraints on groundwater resulting from SGMA, “ultimately underscore the need for additional water storage in California,” he said.
“We’ve got to store and move water to do what we do, to have this marvelous agricultural economy that feeds the state, nation and the world,” Scheuring said.
(Christine Souza is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.)