Valley growers to get bad news on water deliveries

West Valley farmers Friday will hear the news they have feared for weeks — an unprecedented forecast of no federal water for their multibillion-dollar industry.

Farmers now must shift into survival mode, pumping ground water to keep orchards alive and leaving bare dirt where tomatoes, onions and melons grew in previous years.

“People are going to be using every available ground-water well and trying to get by,” said Sarah Woolf, spokeswoman for Westlands Water District, the largest of the affected districts.

One Westlands farmer, Joe Rascon, will cut his cotton crop by 75%. “It is going to be a nightmare,” he said Thursday.

Even if there is a lot of rainfall in the next several weeks, west-side farmers can expect only 10% of the water they want. The lowest previous delivery was 25% during two drought years in the early 1990s.

The announcement Friday stems from complex problems, including three consecutive dry winters and reduced water pumping to protect dwindling fish in Northern California rivers. West siders get water from northern rivers through canals belonging to the federally operated Central Valley Project.

The bad news was shared privately Thursday with legislators in Washington, D.C., and some Valley water leaders.

It is the first water-delivery forecast of the season, water officials said, so a stormy late winter and spring may change the picture. The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, owner of the Central Valley Project, usually modifies the forecast in March and April.

Stormy weather over the past two weeks has added to the Sierra snowpack, but the 400-mile-long range is still far behind — about 75% of average for this date.

Valley water officials say Friday’s forecast will not settle one troubling question: Will east-side farmers have to give up some of their San Joaquin River water for west-side farmers who have high priority under decades-old contracts?

If the high-priority west siders — known as exchange contractors — cannot get their allotment of imported water from Northern California, they can legally get water from Millerton Lake, near Fresno.

That has never happened, and east-side farmers, who irrigate with water from Millerton Lake, would lose water in that event.East siders today also will hear news about their San Joaquin River forecast — 25% for their high-priority farmers in the Friant Water Users Authority and zero for their lower-priority farmers.

“We would like to see a lot of storms in the next several weeks,” said Ron Jacobsma, Friant general manager. “If there is a call on Friant water from the exchange contractors, we could have very tight water supplies this year.”

West-side cities, such as Coalinga and Huron, will be told to expect 50% of their usual allotments, officials said. Many other west-side cities get their water from wells.

Most leaders in west-side communities knew bad news was on the way. Mendota Mayor Robert Silva wonders how much more his farming community can take. He estimates that 80% of his city’s economy is tied to agriculture.

The city’s unemployment rate is 40%. Silva said he is working with social service agencies to distribute 1,000 boxes of food next month.“But that will only be a Band-Aid,” Silva said. “It will only last for a few days.”