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Why Some Farmers Get Little Water Despite Rain

Some California farmers will be getting 100 percent of their requested water allocation this year, but others only 5 percent. Here’s a look at why there are such stark differences in allocations, despite a much wetter year, and what this means for farmers and the environment.

Written by Alastair Bland Published on Read time Approx. 7 minutes
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For many farmers in the state, the drought seems over, at least for a while. The skies finally broke open, and since November several feet of rain have fallen on the hills that slope into Lake Shasta and Lake Oroville. Now, the state’s two largest reservoirs are nearly filled and the high mountains are coated with snowpack that is still getting thicker.

In the Glenn-Colusa Irrigation District, farmers will have all the water they need. Last year this 140,000-acre (57,000-hectare) water district north of Sacramento was allocated 75 percent of its full, normal water year share though many farmers, who have senior water rights, only drew 60 percent. This year their allocation is at 100 percent. That’s 825,000 acre-feet (1 billion cubic meters) of Sacramento River water, most of which will go to the region’s expansive rice fields.

But for some farmers, especially south of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, 2016 is looking like yet another panic year. Water allocations to hundreds of thousands of acres of fields and orchards are just 5 percent – hardly better than the zero-percent federal deliveries of 2014 and 2015.

“You’ve got Lake Shasta at 90 percent capacity and probably going to be full by the summer, and Folsom filling up, and south of the Delta farmers are getting almost no water – it’s a screaming headline that the system is broken,” says Mike Wade, executive director of the California Farm Water Coalition, a group that represents farmers statewide.

Farmers on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley will be especially impacted. Not only is the region naturally extremely dry, but many growers there have junior water water contract positions with the government, which – through written agreements made decades ago – puts them first in line to get cut off by water agencies when supplies run low. Laws that protect water quality and endangered species can also curtail water deliveries to junior rights holders, even if water appears to be available.

Westlands Water District, a 600,000-acre (243,000-hectare) farming region on the San Joaquin Valley’s west side, will be receiving almost no water from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation for the third year in a row.

“This is the year, the El Nino year we needed, but we’re at 5-percent allocation,” says Gayle Holman, spokesperson for Westlands Water District.

The problem is that delivering water to farmers in the San Joaquin Valley isn’t always as simple as just turning on the large pumps at the south edge of the Delta. Strict regulations, including the Clean Water Act and the Endangered Species Act, sometimes limit how much water can be pumped out of the Delta. Especially in the spring, running the Delta pumping stations near Tracy at full throttle may pose a threat to juvenile Chinook salmon, a species currently in dire straits.

Holman calls the shortage of water in her district a “regulatory drought.”

“Mother Nature has stepped in with nice rainfall and snowpack, but we can’t move the water south of the Delta,” she says.

But Westlands’ water supply troubles are not exactly a surprise. In 1963, the giant water district signed a contract with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation that laid out the ground rules for how water would be delivered to the region.

“When the district was created, they promised as part of a contract that they would use groundwater and also surplus surface water when it was available,” says Jon Rosenfield, a conservation biologist with the Bay Institute, a water watchdog and environmental group in San Francisco. “Well, now it’s just not available.”

Though Westlands and other farm groups frequently blame environmental regulations as the chief source of their grief, much of the water that recently fell in the Central Valley will be consumed by people. While a lot of rain fell in March, a great deal of that water, Rosenfield explains, never even got to the Delta. Instead, it has been held in reservoirs, like Lake Shasta and Lake Oroville in the Sacramento basin, and Millerton Lake and Don Pedro Reservoir in the San Joaquin system.

Later in the summer, that stored water will be released through the dams and drawn into farm fields of senior water rights holders.

“It’s still being put to human use, just not so much in the Delta,” Rosenfield says.

Under more ideal circumstances for Westlands, some portion of the heavy runoff that gushed into the Sacramento basin in March would have flowed into the Delta and been pumped south and used to fill San Luis Reservoir, a manmade storage pool southeast of San Jose that serves as Westlands’ principal water bank. This reservoir relies entirely on imported water and is currently half full.

“But regulatory restrictions are clearly taking priority over us,” Holman says.

The California Department of Water Resources, which uses its own conveyance system to move about 4 million acre-feet (5 billion cubic meters) of water each year, will be delivering just under half of its contracted volume in 2016. The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation will be providing about 60 percent of the 9.5 million acre-feet water it may deliver in a very wet year.

What farmers south of the Delta, in the San Joaquin River basin, really needed this winter was more local rainfall, says Shane Hunt, public affairs officer with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.

Though the Sacramento system, reservoirs included, has plenty of water in it, the San Joaquin system does not. Its main reservoirs are still nowhere near filled, and flows in the San Joaquin River itself are low. Under such conditions, revving the Delta pumps could easily reverse the river’s seaward flow, sucking small fish, and even seawater, toward the pumps.

So, pumping rates have been restricted. Hunt says the Bureau of Reclamation’s Delta pumps are now running at about 1,000 cubic feet (28 cubic meters) per second – about a quarter of their maximum capacity.

The environmental restrictions on Delta pumping ease significantly after June, by which time endangered native fishes usually have dispersed from the area. Hunt says the Bureau of Reclamation plans to run the pumps at full capacity for at least July, August and September.

Still, for farming regions like Westlands, this will probably be too little, too late. While farmers in the Sacramento Valley often sell their water in dry years to users in the San Joaquin Valley – lucrative transactions that depend on some flow capacity in government pumps and canals – there may be no space available this summer for such private water transfers, according to Hunt.

“We have cities, senior water users, and wildlife refuges to provide for first,” Hunt says.

To survive another nearly waterless year, Westlands, Holman says, will resort to intensive mining of groundwater, a serious problem that is causing the Earth’s surface to plunge at a rate of inches per month in parts of the San Joaquin Valley. Much land will probably also have to be fallowed, she says. Last year, Westlands farmers left 214,000 acres (87,000 hectares) of fields unplanted. About the same will be left barren this spring and summer.

“Regulatory restrictions are killing us,” Holman says.

Certainly, there will be some grief among the farmers and laborers in the San Joaquin Valley this year, but they’re hardly facing a Steinbeckian Dust Bowl scenario. The California agriculture industry had its best year ever in 2014. Among plant crops, nothing is more lucrative now than almonds. The water-intensive, $6-billion industry centered in the San Joaquin Valley produced one of its biggest crops ever in 2014 – a haul of almost 2 billion lb (900 million kg). The harvest was down slightly in 2015. Most of California’s almonds are exported to Asia.

In Westlands, farmers are investing heavily in almonds. Acreage of the water-intensive trees has tripled in the district since 2000, with 82,000 bearing acres (33,000 hectares) now planted. Pistachio acreage has exploded, too, from about 5,000 at the turn of the millennium to more than 35,000 now. Overall, Westlands is planted with almost 200,000 acres of permanent trees and vines, with farmers converting thousands more acres each year to these crops.

Environmentalists and other critics say this is a risky planting strategy for a region with a junior water contract – a strategy that exposes farmers to the risk of financial disaster and threatens public water supplies.

That’s because orchards may die if denied water for even one season. Whereas annual row crops can be planted and harvested in a period of months, replanting trees and vines means several years with no income. Thus, farmers who invest in tree crops are likely to exert strong pressure on water agencies and lawmakers – such as Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who recently called for increasing Delta pumping – to maintain deliveries.

Farmers in the Glenn-Colusa Irrigation District are slowly expanding their acreage of high-value tree fruits, also. The district’s general manager Thad Bettner says nut and olive groves are expanding by 500–1,000 acres (200–400 hectares) per year. However, because the Glenn-Colusa Irrigation District, farmed since the 1800s, has senior water rights, there is little risk of these trees going waterless for a season, even in the driest years.

Still, Bettner agrees with Wade and Holman that California’s water delivery system isn’t working.

“We’re seeing how broken a system we really have,” Bettner says. “We had one of the wettest winters in years but [south of the Delta] we couldn’t use most of the water.”

Top image: Farmer Dan Errotabere inspects his garlic field near Five Points, California. Errotabere has had to fallow hundreds of acres of land because the Westlands Water District where he’s a member has faced severe water cutbacks due to regulations that protect fish in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. (Gosia Wozniacka, Associated Press)

This version corrects an earlier version of the story that described Westlands as a junior water rights holder, it has a junior water contract.

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