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Plentiful rain and snow, but westside growers get shortchanged on water supply

The Sacramento-San Joaquin rivers delta, a flashpoint in California’s water wars.
The Sacramento-San Joaquin rivers delta, a flashpoint in California’s water wars. Fresno Bee file

In January and February, California was blessed by a series of storms, some with enough precipitation to be classified as atmospheric rivers, that will serve as water supply for the state during the dry season. Indeed, these storms produced enough snow that on Feb. 19, the water content in the Sierra was not only in excess of 100 percent of the long-term average for that date, but was in excess of 100 percent of the long-term average for April 1. In addition, on that date storage in all Central Valley Project reservoirs was near or more than 100 percent of the long-term average for the date.

But still, on Feb. 20, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation announced that south-of-Delta farmers who rely on CVP water to irrigate their crops would receive only 35 percent of their contract supplies. Many farmers, water agencies, and members of Congress asked, how could this be? The answer is simple: rigid regulatory constraints imposed on operations of the CVP prevented Reclamation from making a common-sense water management decision. These are the same constraints that have handcuffed the water delivery system since 2008.

This year the operational constraints that prevented Reclamation from allocating more water to south-of-Delta farmers were imposed by the 2009 biological opinion issued by the National Marine Fisheries Service to protect anadromous fish. Despite storage in Shasta Lake that on Feb. 19 was 104 percent of the long-term average, biologists at NMFS insisted that Reclamation reduce allocations so Shasta Lake, based on a conservative forecast that assumed dry conditions for the remainder of the year, would have sufficient water in storage to create a cold-water pool to protect spawning salmon in the Sacramento River below Shasta Dam. Forecasted operations of Shasta were so conservative that Reclamation projected end of September 2019 storage in Shasta Lake would be 2.65 million acre-feet. This is 750 thousand acre-feet more than the minimum level for end-of-September Shasta storage prescribed by the NMFS biological opinion.

As the water year progresses, the allocation for farmers south of the Delta will undoubtedly increase. But uncertainty about how much water Reclamation will ultimately allocate makes it nearly impossible for farmers to efficiently plan their farming operations. Without knowing how much water Reclamation will make available, farmers must gamble when deciding whether to plant a field or deciding which crop to plant. In addition, low initial allocations result in farmers pumping more groundwater from an overtaxed groundwater basin early in the growing season. Any water manager will tell you that sound principles of conjunctive use demand that when surface water is plentiful, farmers should rely on surface water, rather than groundwater. But even in wet years, like this one, if Reclamation cannot allocate surface water because of unreasonable constraints imposed on operations of its largest reservoir, farmers will continue to overpump from the groundwater basin.

The low initial allocation, in a year that in mid-February was on course to end with precipitation and runoff that is well above average, is further evidence that California’s water system is not working. Fortunately, both the federal and state governments recognize this fact. Reclamation, working with the United States Fish & Wildlife Service, NMFS, the California Department of Water Resources and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, are reevaluating constraints imposed by the existing biological opinions and are asking, is there a smarter way to protect fish and supply water? Rather than focusing entirely on controlling one factor, operations of the CVP and State Water Project, these agencies are developing actions that will address numerous other factors, including loss of spawning and rearing habitat, predation, unscreened diversions, and water quality, that limit the abundance of Delta smelt and anadromous fish. And Reclamation is exploring with NMFS better ways to manage cold water pools in reservoirs to protect spawning salmon below Reclamation’s dams. These efforts and potential changes to CVP and SWP operations will be based on science and real-time monitoring, rather than arbitrary dates on a calendar or quantities of water.

Unlike the current situation, the new approaches to protecting and enhancing fish abundance will address the many factors that limit fish and have the greater potential of accomplishing their intended purpose than focusing only on flow alone. And the new approaches being evaluated have the potential of restoring water supply and reliability to farmers, businesses, and residents in virtually every region of the state. The new approaches have the potential of creating a well-functioning water system, with the flexibility to provide supply during periods of abundance while protecting fish populations through better science and management actions.

In the short-term, because of wet hydrologic conditions, the allocation for farmers served by the CVP will increase. But in the long-term, we must find better ways of managing the system, to provide better protection for fish and wildlife and an adequate, more reliable supply of water for people. All water users, farmers, cities, and the environment, will benefit from the ongoing efforts of federal and state agencies to address one of the most important policy issues facing the state.

Jose Gutierrez is a registered civil engineer and is the chief operating officer of Westlands Water District.