Capping weeks of political debate over the water-starved west Valley, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar on Friday personally delivered the farm-water forecast — a 5% allotment, and up to 30% if storms keep coming.
The rollout, usually made by lower-level officials in Sacramento, seemed to satisfy Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who now will delay legislation that would override fish protections and provide farmers more water.
But farmers said they were not convinced officials would provide any more than the federal Central Valley Project delivered last year.
Farmers only received 10% of what they could get under long-standing contracts, which resulted in barren fields and a skyrocketing unemployment rate.
For weeks, Feinstein and other California lawmakers have pressured Interior for a 40% water allotment. She was pleased after Salazar said his department will work on adding another 10% to the allotment from other sources, including water from San Joaquin River restoration and the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California.
“For the first time in three years, we’re hopeful there’s help on the way for drought-stricken farmers,” Salazar said.
The forecast is important because farmers use it to plan their production for the summer. Northern California farmers and some cities also will face cutbacks this year if the weather turns dry. Wildlife refuges will get full deliveries.
Environmentalists and fishing representatives applauded the forecast, but west-side farmers and San Joaquin Valley water officials found little comfort in it.
Todd Allen, a third-generation farmer in the Firebaugh area, said he distrusted the federal government and already planned for a zero allocation — the forecast federal officials made last year.
“I am really disgusted by all the politicians’ promises,” he said. “I am the one caught in the crossfire, and I feel like I am being punished when I haven’t done anything wrong.”
Officials at Westlands Water District, the largest federal water customer on the project, say they will ask immediately that Interior discard the 5% possibility and opt for a 30% allocation, so farmers can put more acreage back into production.
In the past, federal officials have increased allotments by April 1 as the precipitation season produces a bigger snowpack, but that’s too long to wait, Westlands officials said.
Water conditions in the state already support 30% deliveries, said spokeswoman Sarah Woolf. The storage in the largest federal reservoir, Shasta in Northern California, is average for this time of year, erasing some of the deficit from the three-year drought.
“A 30% allocation will put people back to work immediately,” she said. “And it means a positive economic return to the state.”
Two congressmen who represent portions of the west side — Democratic Reps. Dennis Cardoza of Merced and Jim Costa of Fresno — praised Salazar for a good-faith effort, but both cautioned that simple optimism isn’t enough.
“If the weather cooperates, the possible 40% water supply allocation is good news,” Costa said. “The big ‘if’ is whether or not the Department of Interior will do everything in their power to provide it.”
Cardoza added that farmers “cannot take 5% to the bank and expect to receive financing to plant their crops.”
Environmentalists and fishing representatives said the forecast seemed fair, adding that most customers are getting all of their contractual allotments.
Said Earthjustice lawyer Trent Orr: “There is a very carefully balanced water distribution plan in place to deliver water to cities and agricultural operations while keeping enough in the natural waterways to prevent the destruction of our salmon and other native fish.”
Valley water officials said Interior will have to wade through time-consuming issues to obtain the additional 10% supply that Salazar mentioned, particularly on the San Joaquin River.
East Valley farmers are giving up water from Millerton Lake to refill the dried San Joaquin, which runs to the Valley’s west side. It is possible the water could be used to help ease the west-side shortages, said Ron Jacobsma, general manager of Friant Water Users Authority, representing 15,000 east-side farmers.
But Friant farmers so far are forecast to receive only 70% of the water they’re supposed to get, Jacobsma said. That number will have to increase so Friant farmers have enough water for their needs.
“We’re certainly sympathetic to the west side’s problems,” he said. “But this will take time and effort to make sure it will work.”