AG Today April, 12, 2017

Drought busted: Bureau of Reclamation boosts water allocation to 100 percent for west-side farmers

BY BONHIA LEE The Fresno Bee

The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation is boosting the water allocation for farmers south of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta to 100 percent for the first time since 2006.

The announcement Tuesday comes only weeks after the bureau told disappointed growers that they would receive 65 percent of the contract supply from the Central Valley Project. They received a 5 percent allocation last year, causing them to fallow at least 200,000 acres in the Westlands Water District.

“That should have been a no-brainer – 100 percent allocation,” said Ryan Jacobsen, chief executive officer of the Fresno County Farm Bureau. With one of the wettest winters in years, “there shouldn’t have been a question mark … this is something we should have seen in February.”

What changed the bureau’s mind? The snowpack results.

On March 30, the state Department of Water Resources reported the average statewide snow-water equivalent in the Sierra Nevada was nearly 46 inches, or 164 percent of the historical average for March.

“Following the California Department of Water Resources exceptional March 30 snow survey results, Reclamation is pleased to announce this increase to a 100 percent allocation for our South-of-Delta water contractors,” acting regional director Pablo Arroyave said in a news release. “However, as Gov. Brown reminded us last week when lifting California’s drought state of emergency, the next drought could be around the corner. It is crucial that we remain vigilant in conserving our precious water resources.”

But the governor’s order kept the drought emergency in place for Fresno, Kings, Tulare and Tuolumne counties to ensure that money continues to flow for emergency drinking water projects to help water-short communities address dry or contaminated wells.

The farm bureau and Westlands Water District welcomed the water boost news, but both organizations say Tuesday’s announcement underscores a bigger problem – a broken water delivery system.

The Central Valley Project was designed to deliver full supplies in all types of water years with allocations to be made in mid-February so farmers can make planting decisions, Westlands said. Since 2006, the district has experienced allocations ranging from zero to 80 percent. From 2014 to 2015 the allocation was zero. In 2016, farmers got 5 percent but were told it could not be used during the irrigation season, the water district said.

“For farmers who had to make planting decisions several months ago, (Tuesday’s) announcement of an increase in supply comes too late in the season to aid their operations,” Westlands said in a news release.

But on a positive note, “the water unused from this year’s allocation will remain in storage for next year. We look forward to a timely, adequate allocation for the next growing season.”

A pair of Valley congressional leaders applauded the full water allocation but also recognized the need to improve the water system.

“I am encouraged by the increased allocation and hope such decisions will be determined earlier moving forward,” Rep. David Valadao, R-Hanford, said in a statement. “Access to a clean, reliable water supply is the lifeblood of the Central Valley’s booming agricultural economy, and is imperative to the everyday lives of all Valley families.”

Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno, said in a statement that Tuesday’s announcement was long overdue for the Valley’s agricultural community.

“While I applaud today’s announcement, there is no denying that California’s water system is broken, and further action must be taken to move California’s water system into the 21st century,” Costa said. “Investments need to be made to build water storage and fix broken water infrastructure, so that more water can be captured during years with above-average rain and snowfall.”