BY JOHN HOLLAND
AMD VIKAAS SHANKER
Full water deliveries have returned to the last of the West Side irrigation districts affected by federal water cutbacks in recent years.
The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation announced Tuesday that it will provide 100 percent of the contract amounts this year to a class of customers that had suffered the worst during the drought. This has not happened since 2006.
The news came too late for some farmers, who have already planted based on the earlier projection of 65 percent for 2017.
“While the water is welcome, it’s very hard to plan when you don’t know what you’re getting,” said Breanne Ramos, executive director of the Merced County Farm Bureau. “And then, all of a sudden, you’re getting this opportunity.”
The abundant winter storms prompted Tuesday’s announcement, which affects much of the cropland from San Joaquin to Kern counties. Other federal customers within this stretch fared better over the five-year drought because of water rights that predate the federal Central Valley Project.
Deliveries had dropped to zero in 2014 and 2015, the worst point in the drought, to the irrigation districts without senior rights. They rose to 5 percent last year.
Even in wet years, these farmers got no more than 80 percent because of concerns about fish being killed by the giant pumps that deliver the water from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.
The reductions prompted farmers to take land out of production or to get more water from wells or distant sellers., if available.
Among the hard-hit suppliers was the Del Puerto Water District, which serves about 45,000 acres along Interstate 5 from Vernalis to Santa Nella. The uncertainty prompted it to secure about a third of its needs with a project that will recycle highly treated outflows from sewage treatment plants for Modesto, Ceres and Turlock.
The allotment was already at 100 percent this year four districts totaling about 225,000 acres from Crows Landing to Mendota, thanks to long-held rights to the San Joaquin River. They are the Central California Irrigation District, the San Luis Canal Co., the Firebaugh Canal Water District and the Columbia Canal Co.
These districts have had full deliveries for all but two of the past dozen years. They got 65 percent in 2014 and 75 percent in 2015. The same went for water supplies for national wildlife refuges along the lower San Joaquin.
The eastern part of the San Joaquin Valley also varied in its drought impacts and has now returned to normal. The Merced Irrigation District delivered virtually no water in 2015. The Turlock and Modesto irrigation districts, which share a Tuolumne River supply, got as low as 40 percent of normal. Best off were the Oakdale and South San Joaquin irrigation districts on the Stanislaus River, which had relatively small reductions.
Cannon Michael, a Los Banos area farmer, said increasing the federal allocation from 65 percent to 100 percent isn’t going to change farmers’ plans much.
“You don’t want to sound ungrateful and unhappy,” Michael said, noting that the full allocation was a good sign. “But as much water as there was in the system, and snow, there seems like there could have been a way to tell earlier.”
The Westlands Water District, which is west of Fresno and by far the largest of these contracts, agreed in a news release that the 2017 announcement is too late for many. But it added that “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.”
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