California farmers who suffered through three years of no Central Valley Project surface water from the federal government were told Wednesday they could expect at least 65 percent of requested deliveries in 2017.
The announcement by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation comes with the optimism that by June farmers could see their projected supply rise to 80 percent if conditions continue to be wet. It also comes with loud criticism that the lack of available water was due to epic drought conditions.
Still, water users across the state wonder why the allocation was not 100 percent given that this year will go down as the wettest season in recorded history.
Officials from the USBR’s Mid-Pacific Region recognized the record-breaking winter that left a “very large snowpack” in watersheds that feed Central Sierra Nevada watersheds in making their decision.
Included in the announcement was the reaffirmation that Sacramento Valley farmers can expect a full allotment, as can users in the Friant Division, which provides water to farmers along the east side of the San Joaquin Valley.
Tale of two seasons
California began its 2017-2018 water year on Oct. 1 with just under five million acre feet of storage in the main Central Valley Project (CVP) reservoirs of Shasta, Trinity, Folsom, Millerton, New Melones and the federal portion of the San Luis Reservoir. This is two million acre feet more than the system held a year earlier.
Since Oct. 1, California has had record amounts of rain and snow which helped fill major reservoirs and allowed the CVP and California State Water Project to fill their respective portions of San Luis Reservoir by early March. As of mid-March, the entire CVP system held over nine million acre-feet of water in storage with estimates of several times that banked in the snow pack.
California has seen so much rain and snow since the water year began that several of these water facilities were put into flood control mode, meaning USBR operators were required to make heavy releases into major rivers to avoid the kind of catastrophe barely averted at Lake Oroville when state officials could not release water fast enough after the main spillway collapsed and water over topped the emergency spillway for the first time since Oroville Dam was built in the late 1960s.
San Luis Reservoir
San Luis Reservoir is a two million-acre-foot off-stream facility located south of the Delta that the CVP shares with the California State Water Project. The CVP can store up to 966,000 acre feet of water in the reservoir which it pumps from the Delta. This facility is at the crux of why USBR officials say Wednesday’s announcement was 65 percent and not upwards of 80 percent.
Ron Milligan, CVP operations manager, says about 30 percent of the federal portion of San Luis Reservoir is water previously purchased and stored by water districts. That water cannot currently be placed on CVP ledgers or be used as part of its allocation because it currently is owned by farmers. This water supply is commonly known as “carryover” water.
Westside farmer Joe Del Bosque is one of those growers who owns a considerable amount of carryover water stored in San Luis Reservoir.
“I am extremely worried about that water we have in San Luis right now,” Del Bosque said after the USBR announcement.
He and others are concerned about how the USBR has the right, over time, to effectively take that water away from those who purchased it and put it into the general CVP account, meaning it becomes available for sale by the CVP to other contractors.
Del Bosque grows almonds, cherries, melons and asparagus across four different water districts near Los Banos and Firebaugh, Calif. In years past as the USBR continued to reduce irrigation allocations to growers like Del Bosque, he did what any farmer with insufficient groundwater would do. He began purchasing water and saving where he could by fallowing ground so he could keep farming.
This led Del Bosque to go on the open market every year and purchase expensive water with hopes of storing it in San Luis Reservoir for later use. Del Bosque currently has “several thousand acre feet” of water in storage in the reservoir that he could permanently lose, along with the money spent for it, if the CVP exercises its right to take control of the water.
According to Milligan, the USBR is trying to avoid such a situation. However, if carryover water is kept in storage and it causes the CVP to forego operations that otherwise could have allowed them to store additional water; any of that carryover water is forfeited to the CVP.
“That’s a tremendous amount of water and I’ve paid a lot of money for that,” Del Bosque said.
In a perfect world, Del Bosque says he would use his carryover water first, before using any of the available CVP supplies. Yet in wet years like this he doesn’t expect to use that much water in a short amount of time. Del Bosque has at least a full season’s worth of irrigation water stored at San Luis.
What’s worse is he has already paid for water to be used in 2018 which he says has yet to be delivered.
This is critical since Reclamation will cap carryover water for the 2018 season at just 150,000 acre feet, or about 15 percent of federal storage capacity.
According to Del Bosque, he has been forced into this cycle of saving and buying enough water to get him through two growing seasons because the USBR is no longer reliable in making sufficient water deliveries to Westside growers like him. While he does not hold the USBR accountable for the weather, he is critical of the agency’s ability to consistently deliver adequate irrigation water on a year-to-year basis.
Why only 65 percent?
The immediate glaring question when the announcement came was, "Why only 65 percent.” Why not 100 percent? After all, this has been a winter of epic proportions.
Westlands Water District, the largest U.S. agricultural water district, calls Reclamation’s announcement “indefensible” given the record amount of rain and snow that continues to fall.
Westlands Water District said in a prepared statement after the USBR decision was made public, “If a 100 percent allocation is not possible this year, when, if ever, would a 100 percent allocation be possible? After all, the public has been told repeatedly that low allocations are due to drought, not regulations. This year is proof that such assertions are false.”
According to Milligan this opportunity for a full allocation was likely lost this year due to large carryover in the San Luis Reservoir. He estimates that without the carryover, the CVP could still fill its portion of San Luis Reservoir, boosting a preliminary allocation to at least 80 percent with the likelihood that it could reach 100 percent if all other hydrologic and meteorological conditions remain just right.
“If all the water in San Luis Reservoir was fully available for this year’s allocation, plus some favorable conditions through the spring, we could definitely be at 100 percent,” Milligan said.
In its prepared statement blasting the 65 percent allocation for south-of-the-Delta water users, Western Growers, a southern California-based association representing fresh produce farmers in California, Arizona and Colorado, said this clarifies the state’s need for more water storage capacity.
“It is time for California to get serious about the building of additional storage capacity, as directed by the voters in approving the 2014 water bond,” the association said in a statement.