On Friday, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation announced that the federal Central Valley Project (CVP) would boost water deliveries to California farmers to five percent from the zero percent the CVP had allocated the past two years.
Other California water agencies will receive a boost in deliveries this year after March rainstorms dropped billions of gallons of water into state reservoirs. However, millions of acre-feet of potable water continue to be flushed out to the Pacific Ocean,
Last week, California officials announced that the State Water Project (SWP) — from which most of the state’s urban water suppliers, including the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, receive their supplies — would receive 45 percent of their allocation this year, a significant increase from the 20 percent allocation granted last year and the zero percent allocation in 2014.
California’s largest reservoirs have filled slowly in March after sinking to nearly record lows last year. As of April 2, the state’s largest reservoir, Lake Shasta, sat at 89 percent of its capacity and 109 percent of its historic average for the date, while Lake Oroville and Folsom Lake were similarly filled beyond their historic averages.
The Sierra Nevada snowpack, from which the state draws roughly a third of its annual water supply, has similarly improved in March after a hot February melted much of the snow. The snowpack measured 81 percent of average on April 4, though that level will likely decline with the arrival of warmer weather in spring and summer.
While farmers who get their water from the CVP will see a slight uptick in deliveries this year, the announcement of the five percent allocation was met with scorn by some in the state’s stressed agriculture community, who said the low figure was a testament to the inefficiency with which the federal water project is run.
“A year like this, with as much rain and snowpack as we’ve had, it’s ridiculous,” said Johnny Amaral, deputy general manager of the Westlands Water District, which services hundreds of farmers in the Central Valley. “Unfortunately, it’s not really unexpected or a surprise. It’s the way they’re managing the project. When you’re not pumping water when you have the opportunity to pump water, the result is perfectly predictable.”
Even as the current El Niño has dumped torrential rain on Northern California reservoirs, millions of acre-feet of water — or billions of gallons of potable water — have flowed from the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta out to the Pacific Ocean.
According to data provided the Westlands Water District, just 1.7 million acre-feet of water have been pumped from the Delta to communities and farmers in the south in the four months between December and March, while more than 7 million acre-feet of water was sent to sea. As more rain fell due to El Niño, pumping levels remained relatively consistent, and well below pumping facilities’ total export capacity.
Delta outflows are made to comply with federal biological opinions (BiOps) on the river’s salmon and smelt populations, to protect those endangered species from extinction. But it not clear that an increase in pumping water from the Delta — particularly when a rare increase in rainfall makes such pumping possible — would further harm the river’s smelt population, a point Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) argued in a letter last week that called on President Obama to increase pumping for thirsty communities and farms in the south.
“Despite these high flows, rather than pumping as much water as possible without undue harm to the smelt, pumping levels remained constant for the past month,” Feinstein wrote in the open letter. “Coupled with the fact that only three individual smelt were caught at the pumps this year, and that the most recent trawls revealed no Delta smelt in the south Delta, it seems to me that the agencies operate the system in a manner that may be contrary to the available data, culled from what is already a limited monitoring regime.”
Feinstein, who introduced a $1.3 billion long-term drought fix bill in the Senate in January, said that with their unwillingness to increase pumping after significant rainfall, federal water agencies were putting drought-ravaged California communities in a “catch-22.”
“Pumping is reduced when there are concerns about the presence of smelt caught as far away as 17 miles from the pumps,” she wrote. “Yet agencies will also reduce pumping due to the absence of smelt, based on the idea that historically low smelt populations make detection difficult.”
In its allocation announcement, the Bureau of Reclamation said that CVP contractors located north of the Delta would receive 100 percent of their water allocation for the first time since 2006, while Friant division contractors would receive 30 percent of their allocation.
Fresno County Farm Bureau CEO Ryan Jacobsen called the discrepancy in allocation an illustration of the “degree of mismanagement and inconsistency by the federal government in operating the Central Valley Project.”
“The federal water policy has failed,” Jacobsen said in a statement. “It has failed to protect fish species, and, most importantly, it’s failed to provide water to the communities and businesses who need it most.”
Adding to the stresses of many federal contractors are the operation and maintenance (O and M) fees agencies must pay in addition to the cost of the water they receive. While the exact fee totals fluctuate depending on the amount of water delivered, federal contractors must still pay what amounts to millions of dollars to maintain and operate the CVP, whether the agency’s allocation is zero or 50 percent.
Meanwhile, millions of acres of fertile California soil continue to be fallowed as farmers make critical decisions about what to plant, and where. Amaral estimates that half of Westlands Water District’s usable farmland — roughly 200,000 acres — will lay fallow this year due to the continued, and partially man-made, water shortage.
“The elected officials are going to have to decide if this region is worth protecting.” he said. “It’s a perfect growing region. It’s like a machine, it’s got the perfect soil, perfect climate. When you cut the water off, this is what happens.”
Follow Daniel Nussbaum on Twitter: @dznussbaum