Ag Today October 7, 2016

Water worries persist for agriculture -Westside

Posted: Thursday, October 6, 2016 8:51 am

Uncertainty continues to swirl around water-related issues facing West Side agriculture.

In the wake of a uniquely challenging summer when the supply of federal water in San Luis Reservoir was virtually exhausted, providers of irrigation water are looking ahead in anticipation of what 2017 may bring.

Officials with the Central California Irrigation District, an exchange contractor with strong water rights, and the much smaller Del Puerto Water District, a federal water district running along the I-5 corridor, expect challenges to continue.

Anthea Hansen, general manager of the Del Puerto district, recently told Mattos Newspapers that all indications are the district will not receive an allocation of surface water from the federal Central Valley Project next year.

Del Puerto received a meager 5 percent allocation this year after two years of zero allocation.

Absent major changes, Hansen said, the impact on growers next year may be even more devastating because falling commodities have left some without the wherewithal to continue purchasing high-priced water obtained by the district from supplemental sources.

She estimated that up to 12,000 acres, or about 25 percent of the irrigated land in the district, was fallowed this year due to lack of water.

“It could be as early as next year when we start seeing more incidents of fallowed land or orchards being pushed out early. I’m sensing that the customers have hit their limit, particularly since the commodity prices have fallen,” Hansen explained. “We’ve been surviving now the last three years on supplemental supplies. The only reason we could do it the last couple of years was because of the good situation in the commodities market.”

CCID General Manager Chris White said the inability to move water through the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta was so pronounced this year that, at one point, providers served by the Delta-Mendota Canal were issued a shut-off notice.

“(The Bureau of Reclamation) lagged behind in beginning their early summer releases. Then they got into a plan where they were forced to limit releases into the river during the peak of summer. We have an imbalance in the system. San Luis, in the middle of summer, was so low that the feds ran out of water in July,” White explained.

The shut-off was only averted because of creative efforts to “borrow” water owned by others that was in storage.

The bureau was able to meet demand from CCID, White added, but during that critical time the district was as efficient with managing that demand as possible and for a time turned to its own wells to help ease the crisis.

Now, White said, the federal agency is faced with the need to repay that water – which means that water now being pumped into the reservoir, which normal would go into storage for next year’s water supply, is being allocated to meet that obligation.

“We are starting to see San Luis fill. Unfortunately, it is not filling very rapidly on the federal side,” White said. “With water that is having to be paid back now, the water managers in this area are concerned about how this sets us up for 2017.”

He said a temperature management plan for the Sacramento River designed for salmon populations, had to be modified later in the year than usual, which disrupted the ability to move water out of Shasta Reservoir and through the delta.

CCID, which had a full allocation this year, has a safety net of sorts in its enviable water rights.

If the federal bureau cannot meet its obligations to the district with water from Shasta, it can make a call on water from Friant Dam.

“From our perspective, it was not how much we were going to receive but from what source,” White remarked. “I don’t think that we ever felt that we were going to be shorted, but there were a lot of uncertainties about how operations were going to occur. It is a much more challenging operation for us.”

Hansen, whose district extends from Vernalis to Santa Nella along the I-5 corridor, said she anticipates that environmental concerns will once again trump ag interests next year.

“We think that everybody in the regulatory arena will be extremely cautious to try to manage the system to the benefit of the fisheries, and that translates into our inability to receive an allocation,” she explained.

A water recycling project in the works will eventually deliver a reliable amount of water to Del Puerto, but only enough to meet a portion of demand.

“Recycling will put us in a different position going forward, but we will still be looking for ways to adapt to the new normal,” Hansen predicted.

Normal may be a moving target.

“We are concerned that when all this water gets paid back and we get into January and February, the amount of water that can be used to meet our demands will be minimal,” White reflected. “That would put 2017 operations in the same kind of jeopardy that we saw in 2016. We are paying a lot of attention to how 2017 operations will occur. We are working with the Bureau of Reclamation, our neighboring federal water districts and the Friant District to see what we think the water supply is going to look like in 2017, and if we have a dry year what operations will need to look like.”