Valley Voices

Big storms and new federal water law offer farmers hope for 2017

Clouds shroud the mountains behind a flooded field east of Clovis on Dec. 16, 2016.
Clouds shroud the mountains behind a flooded field east of Clovis on Dec. 16, 2016. The Fresno Bee file

After what has already been above-average precipitation this year, parts of the state are bracing to receive a foot or more of rain this weekend. It’s reminiscent of 1997, a wet year where storms in the Sierra and Central Valley on New Year’s Day caused widespread, record-setting flooding throughout the state.

At Millerton Lake, water is already being released from Friant Dam to make space for the heavy precipitation expected in the area over the weekend. While a single, heavy-rain event does not erase the deficit created by the California drought, it – along with a key new federal law – gives us hope for a more reliable water supply this year for the San Joaquin Valley’s communities, businesses and $25-billion agricultural economy.

As 2017 begins, we are seeing two big reasons for optimism:

▪ This is even better than 2016: as of today, the San Joaquin watershed has received about 35 percent more precipitation than last year at this time. It’s been so long since we’ve had normal winters back-to-back that this year feels less ordinary and more extraordinary.

In 2015, we only received 45 percent of the average precipitation for the entire year, but we’ve already well surpassed that for 2017 and there’s a lot of winter left to go. At Millerton Lake, we define a “wet” year as one with about 2.5 million acre-feet of runoff on the San Joaquin into the reservoir; right now, we have a 90 percent likelihood of seeing at least 2.2 million acre-feet during 2017.

▪ A newly passed federal water law is already helping the Valley. Last month, leadership from our California delegation in Congress worked to craft and pass bipartisan water provisions as part of the Water Infrastructure Investments for the Nation (WIIN) Act signed by President Obama on Dec. 16.

Operationally, the WIIN Act directs regulatory agencies to maximize water for the state and federal water users when water is available and safe to pump from the Delta. In the past, regulatory agencies have erred too far in the direction of providing these flows to the ocean, even when no benefit to fish was apparent. The WIIN Act provides an important counterbalance to this worrying trend.

Valley water users are already seeing the effects of the WIIN Act in Delta pumping and operational decisions by the Bureau of Reclamation in the past few weeks. This discretion has allowed capture of more storm flows for the benefit of water users, without any additional evidence of harm to fish. This is what the Endangered Species Act and other regulations require, and what the WIIN Act allows.

The timing for passage of the WIIN Act was critical for the Valley: We needed Delta pump operators to have the discretion and opportunity to pump water south during the winter storms, when river flows are high and potential harm to fish species is smallest. In fact, we would estimate that so far about 100,000 acre-feet more has been made available to the Valley this year compared to last.

Nevertheless, long-term solutions to water supply reliability for the Valley are still elusive. These winter storms will pass, and most of the California water provisions of the WIIN Act sunset in five years. Additional work is necessary to close the estimated 2.5-million-acre-foot annual average shortage that Valley agriculture faces and bring regional surface and groundwater supplies into a balance with current and future needs.

Valley communities should be encouraged by U.S. Rep. David Valadao’s recent introduction of HR 23, the GROW Act, which ensures that the Valley’s water needs will remain a high priority for our elected officials long after the wet weather ends.

Jason Phillips is CEO for the Friant Water Authority, which delivers water to 1 million acres on the eastside of the San Joaquin Valley, from Madera to Bakersfield.