Six Northern California irrigation districts that serve growers on roughly 150,000 acres of farmland in the northern Sacramento Valley are on notice that they will receive 100 percent of their surface water allocations from the Feather River this year.
The announcement comes in the wake of storms that added as much as 1.2 million acre feet of storage over the course of several weeks in two major Northern California reservoirs: Shasta and Oroville.
“It’s a good announcement,” said Colleen Cecil, executive director of the Butte County Farm Bureau. “It means those growers won’t be pulling from the aquifer to irrigate their crops.”
The districts impacted largely produce rice and tree crops. The largest if these is the Western Canal Water District which serves 125 growers and 60,000 acres of farmland in Butte County.
Ted Trimble, general manager of Western Canal Water District said the news means his growers will not only have the water they need for their crops – about 90 percent of the district is planted in rice with the rest in trees and row crops – but the district could be in the position to sell water this summer given its full allocation. Local water needs will be addressed first, he said, before any possible sales take place.
As of deadline Trimble had only a verbal confirmation that his district would receive a full allocation of Feather River water this season. The district’s water rights allows for pass-through flows of Feather River water directly to the district without being stored in Lake Oroville. That water flows by gravity into the district’s system and is used by growers and one state wildlife refuge.
Groundwater pumping to irrigate Northern California crops remains cause for concern with growers, Cecil said. Underground aquifers have taken a serious hit throughout California in recent years as surface water for irrigation needs has steadily been cut back in many areas across the state.
According to David Murillo, regional director of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, recent storms and runoff may have added enough water to the federal system to provide senior water rights holders elsewhere in the state a slight “bump” in their allocation. Earlier this year Murillo’s agency shocked senior water rights holders with news that they would receive 40 percent of their contracted water allocation. The contract between the government and those users specifically spells out a 75 percent or 100 percent allocation based on water conditions. Water rights holders fired back with a letter from their attorney saying the federal government has no legal authority to arbitrarily choose an allocation less than 75 percent under terms of the contract.
Murillo was one of several federal and state officials who manage projects like the federal Central Valley Project (CVP) and the State Water Project (SWP) to brief the media by telephone on the newly-released California Drought Operations Plan. He was joined on the phone with Mark Cowin, director of the California Department of Water Resources, and representatives of several state and federal wildlife agencies including the US Fish and Wildlife Service and NOAA Fisheries.
The 158-page plan for operating the federal Central Valley Project and the State Water Project in an epic drought year is called a “framework” by California Department of Water Resources Director Mark Cowin and others. It is the combined effort of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation (USBR), California Department of Water Resources (DWR), U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW), and the State Water Resources Control Board (SWRCB).
The plan has several purposes. It seeks to operate CVP and SWP facilities to meet essential human health and safety needs related to drinking water, sanitation and fire suppression; it seeks to control saltwater intrusion in the Delta region; it attempts to hold enough storage in facilities like Shasta Lake to provide cold water flows in the Sacramento River during the various runs of Chinook Salmon; and, it seeks to maintain minimum protections for endangered species and other wildlife impacted by the drought.
The human needs related to Delta salinity levels are particularly critical since millions of urban users receive their water from Delta pumping stations. Those pumps must remain free of saltwater and officials fear that in extreme conditions there may not be enough storage in the reservoirs to repel saltwater and maintain a freshwater supply for millions of urban residents.
More adjustments forthcoming?
The plan is based on hydrologic conditions as of early March and does not consider late-March rains and the April 1 snow survey. Cowin defended the apparent early release of such a plan given that history suggests better planning can be made from the April 1 snow survey than from earlier surveys and estimates. Cowin left open the idea of making adjustments to the plan in coming weeks.
Los Banos grower Cannon Michael criticized the plan as too heavily focused on environmental and animal species needs while refusing to address the needs of agriculture. Michael is one of the senior water rights holders who were told earlier this year they would receive less water than their contract with the USBR states.
Much of the briefing centered on addressing adequate flows for fish and meeting Delta salinity requirements under the long-standing premise that salinity levels in the Delta cannot be allowed to impact urban and agricultural pumping stations.
Agricultural users were generally not discussed during the briefing. Instead, officials focused on environmental impacts to fish and wildlife and the efforts being made to move fish to spawning grounds and considerations for cold-water releases from reservoirs like Shasta and Oroville to provide spawning habitat for migrating salmon.
While agricultural pumping has not taken place in months, officials recently stepped up pumping into San Luis Reservoir, an off-stream holding site with a capacity of just over two million acre feet. That water is used in part to supply agricultural users south of the Delta. Pumping into San Luis Reservoir began only recently after late-season storms helped boost runoff through the Delta. Prior to those late-March storms much of the runoff that did occur was allowed to flow unimpeded to the Pacific Ocean.
Despite reports of additional water elsewhere in the state and the momentary increase in pumping to San Luis Reservoir, water officials stuck to their earlier announcements of zero percent water allocations to agricultural users.
Cowin said the state’s zero-percent allocation will likely not change in the wake of recent storms that added nearly 700,000 acre feet of storage to Shasta Lake and more than 530,000 acre feet of storage at Lake Oroville. As of April 9 Shasta Lake was 51 percent of capacity and Oroville was half full.
“At this point we intend to stick with the previous allocations for both south-of-the-Delta water users and north-of-the-Delta water users,” Cowin said. “We’re going to update those numbers based upon the April 1 forecast and we’ll all hope that there’s a slight increase, but clearly there’s not enough water in the system this year to expect significant amounts of water relative to a normal year for agriculture.”