Sacramento Valley rice growers will receive more water than expected this drought year due to recent storms and an agreement to defer irrigation water use by at least one month.
As a result, growers of rice and other crops who tap into the Central Valley Project (CVP) will receive 75 percent of their federal water allocation this season.
The water-allocation plan was announced during a media briefing conducted by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, the California Department of Water Resources (CDWR), the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, and the National Marine Fisheries Service.
Under the plan, agency officials say water will be managed this year to benefit salmon, birds along the Pacific Flyway, and family farms which are all economic drivers for the region.
“The announcement was an absolute godsend,” says Colusa County rice grower Bruce Rolen, owner of Bruce & Barbara Rolen Farms in Williams. “It was a wonderful relief to all growers in the Sacramento Valley.”
Water availability was questionable for several months due to the severe statewide drought.
“We received a notice several months ago from Bureau of Reclamation indicating that our settlement contract would only include a 40 percent supply,” said Thad Bettner, general manager of the Glenn-Colusa Irrigation District (GCID).
This was followed by continued drought and speculation that farmers would receive zero surface water. This changed following significant rain and snow storms in February and March.
Tim Johnson, president and chief executive officer of the Sacramento-based California Rice Commission: “We were concerned about eight weeks ago that there would be no surface water (river or reservoir) for agriculture in the state. In that case, we would have only been able to grow rice with groundwater” – a scenario discussed by CDWR.
“This would have devastated agriculture and rice,” Johnson said. “We don’t use much groundwater in the Sacramento Valley since we have always had surface water. Due to the additional rains and water managers working closely with the different state and federal agencies, we were able to get a much different outcome.”
Sacramento River settlement contractors also agreed to shift the beginning of federal water deliveries from the usual March-April schedule to May-June to provide water for fish, waterfowl, and other wildlife species.
The settlement contractors worked diligently to shift diversions into May to increase Shasta Reservoir storage by more than 150,000 acre feet. The water will be used later for temperature-controlled releases to enhance salmon survival.
“The agricultural industry said, ‘We understand there’s a huge water crisis here so we’re willing to cooperate and move our irrigation demand time from April to May.’ That was part of the relief which led to up to the 75 percent allocation,” stated Rolen.
The rice grower added, “In the spirit of cooperation with the Bureau, we understand this is a super-critical time and we’re willing to defer irrigation to coincide with the needs of the fish.”
Rolen serves on the board of directors of the GCID, the largest water district in the Sacramento Valley.
He says the federal water-allocation plan was tied to efforts by David Murillo of the Mid-Pacific Region of the Bureau of Reclamation; Bettner of GCID; Don Bransford, GCID chairman; Lewis Bair of Reclamation District 108; and Fritz Durst, chairman of RD 108.
“Those folks put together a revised operational plan, in cooperation with the Bureau of Reclamation, so we could simultaneously use water to farm in coordination with salmon spawning,” Rolen said.
In addition, water transfers will be allowed between north-state districts and outside of the Sacramento Valley.
“The Central Valley Project districts and the State Water Project districts are cooperating with the Department of Water Resources to accommodate water transfers,” Rolen said.
If growers in the San Joaquin Valley need to buy water, the northern districts could make it available.
“RD108 and GCID are allowing transfers from their districts to the Tehama-Colusa Canal Authority out west to help facilitate water deliveries to permanent crops including almonds, walnuts, olives, and grapes,” he added.
Most rice growers on the valley’s east side, who receive surface water from the State Water Project, will receive 100 percent of their allocation; up from 50 percent originally projected. This water comes from Lake Oroville and the Feather River system.
“The irrigation districts from Richvale as far away as Sutter will receive 100 percent. They are the oldest water right holders on the Feather River,” Rolen explained.
Johnson says most of Feather River contractors will receive 100 percent, yet some contractors with junior water rights, including Yolo County, could still face significant reductions.
California rice acreage typically averages about 500,000 acres statewide. Johnson expects 100,000 fewer rice acres this year due to the drought.
“This will have a negative economic impact for many in agriculture, including pest control advisers, fertilizer and equipment dealers, and others,” Johnson said. “It means fewer dollars for communities in Colusa, Butte, Glenn, and Sutter counties which rely on agriculture as their economic engines.”
As California faces its third consecutive dry year, Johnson encourages those in agriculture to continue water discussions with urban neighbors. The message should be clear that California cannot conserve its way out of droughts and that long-term water solutions are required.