VISALIA — A state water official said Thursday that despite the "horrifying" drought gripping the state, there's still a chance that farmers will get San Joaquin River water this summer instead of the "zero allocation" announced.
"I'm hoping that it's not going to be zero," Felicia Marcus, chairwoman of the State Water Resources Control Board, said at a speech to citrus growers.
The determining factor will be the freshwater needs of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, she said.
State and federal water managers are taking another look at how much water to keep in the rivers to prevent intrusion of salt water from San Francisco Bay, she said.
Joel Nelsen, president of California Citrus Mutual, a citrus growers lobby, said he's encouraged that river managers will take more time to analyze options.
If the federal Bureau of Reclamation and the state decide that the delta will need less water than currently planned, "that'll make more surface water available," he said.
Marcus said the drought is the second worst in state history.
But if climate change predictions prove accurate, "we're going to lose our snowpack" in the Sierra, which traditionally supplies summer water for farms and cities, she said.
She said she favors additional water storage -- "we'd be in better shape today if we had more of it."
Farmers said they liked hearing that message from a state official.
"I'm interested in that storage thing. Keep that moving along," said Exeter citrus grower Charlie Stearns.
But Marcus told reporters later that her support for additional storage doesn't necessarily mean building large dams on rivers. Rather, she favors smaller projects such as off-stream reservoirs and water banking.
Also, California must develop more local water supplies, she said.
Conservation is the "cheapest and easiest" way to free up water, followed by capturing stormwater and recycling wastewater, she said.
Desalinization plants are a potential long-term option for coastal California. But farmers shouldn't assume that widespread desalination would free up north state river water for agriculture, because Southern California water agencies also have contracts for river water.
Former Assembly Member Bill Maze, R-Visalia, who attended the meeting, said later that the Legislature should require coastal communities to build desalinization plants.
"It won't take 20 years, they could be built in five years," he said.
The five-member State Water Resources Control Board, which Marcus chairs, hears appeals of water quality issues that come up from regional water quality control boards and handles water rights issues.
Marcus, formerly the western director of the Natural Resources Defense Council, made a point to praise agriculture as "careful with water use."
She was careful not to cast blame on the issue of groundwater contamination, which can be created by urban or agriculture sources.
Farmers get blamed for nitrates in groundwater, but "that's not the right way to think about it," she said. "The issue for the public is what to do about it."
She said she favors developing safe drinking water for affected communities, such as by extending water pipes to bring in clean water and in extreme cases supplying bottled water.
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