Water & Drought

Feds announce initial Central Valley Project water allocation. Westlands isn’t pleased

Water from Millerton Lake fills the Friant-Kern canal below Friant Dam in July 2017.
Water from Millerton Lake fills the Friant-Kern canal below Friant Dam in July 2017. Fresno Bee file

San Joaquin Valley farmers on the east side will be getting their full allocation of San Joaquin River water, while farmers on the west side will be getting only 35 percent to start, according to the 2019 initial water supply allocation released Wednesday by the federal Bureau of Reclamation.

The bureau runs the Central Valley Project that delivers irrigation water from the San Joaquin and Sacramento rivers to Valley water districts.

While there has been a lot of rain and snow this winter, Bureau of Reclamation Mid-Pacific Region Director Ernest Conant said the bureau must “act conservatively at this time of year” in issuing the water supply allocation.

The forecast prompted Westlands Water District, which covers more than 1 million acres on the west side, to express concern that the bureau is being too restrictive. It blamed the biological opinion the Bureau uses in making forecasts.

“Given the current hydrologic conditions, including above average precipitation and snowpack in the northern and central Sierra Nevada Mountains, a 35 percent allocation is further evidence that the 2009 biological opinion controlling temperature management of Shasta Reservoir is placing unreasonable restrictions on CVP operations,” Westlands said in a statement. “Moreover, the 35 percent initial allocation demonstrates the need to update the existing biological opinions to reflect the science that has emerged over the last decade.”

The low initial allocation creates “uncertainty” about how much land can be farmed and how much will need to be fallowed, Westlands said.

The Fresno County Farm Bureau expressed similar concerns.

“Today’s announcement of a 35 percent water allocation for Fresno County’s West side federal water contractors once again shows the brokenness of California’s water systems,” said CEO Ryan Jacobsen. “As I have stated many times before, federal water policy has failed everyone...it has failed to protect fish species and it’s failed to provide water to the communities, businesses and farms who need it most.”

But the bureau has released a new biological assessment that farmers hope will mean more water for agriculture, Jacobsen said.

Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno, said he called on the bureau to include recent snowfall and rain in its initial allocation. It has more flexibility under the Water Infrastructure for Improvements to the Nation Act that passed two years ago, he said.

“While I am pleased to see the Bureau making progress given the similarities of weather conditions to last year, it is imperative that the Bureau recognizes the amount of current snowpack, which has the potential to create flexibility for future allocations while simultaneously protecting fish populations,” Costa said in a statement. “I believe we can do better at letting Valley agriculture know how much water will be allocated so they can plan accordingly, while there is still time to plant the crops that are critical to our Valley’s economy and for putting food on America’s dinner tables.”.

100 percent in Friant Division

Meanwhile, farmers in the Friant Division of the Central Valley Project got 100 percent allocation for Class 1 water, meaning water districts will get the first 800,000 acre-feet off the river from spring snowmelt.

“It means there’s a lot more breathing room,” said Dan Vink, executive director of the South Valley Water Association. “We can all feel good there will be water for summer runs.”

The National Weather Service estimates there is 2.1 million acre-feet of water waiting in the upper San Joaquin River basin, he said. To date, precipitation totals are about 150 percent of the April 1 average, he said.

The feds told Friant Division farmers who have Class 2 water stored in Millerton Lake to take it by the end of March or lose it, because the bureau needs to make room for spring runoff flowing into the lake.

It’s too wet right now for farmers to use that water, but it will be used for irrigation and groundwater recharge, Vink said.

A problem related to the California drought is making it harder to take the Class 2 water, said Friant Water Users Authority CEO Jason Phillips.

“Unfortunately, because the Friant-Kern Canal has lost so much capacity due to land subsidence, several prime groundwater recharge basins are not accessible, which might result in losing otherwise available to the ocean later in the year,” he said. “Fixing the canal and reducing the subsidence causing the problem remains a high priority.”

Having to move out Class 2 water just makes the case that more water storage options are needed on the San Joaquin River, the Fresno Farm Bureau said.

The Bureau of Reclamation also announced that 322,000 acre-feet of San Joaquin River water would be made available for the San Joaquin River Restoration Program, which is trying to re-establish a salmon run on the river.

Lewis Griswold: 559-441-6104, @fb_LewGriswold

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