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Serving: West

USBR shorts some California farmers irrigation water

Friant Dam
<p>The Bureau of Reclamation will generally give full irrigation allotments to northern California contractors while limiting those in the San Joaquin Valley to 5 percent or less.</p>
Northern California water users receive full allotment San Joaquin Valley irrigators receive 0-5% Water users highly critical of USBR decision

Some federal water contractors in California were outraged on April 1 when the Bureau of Reclamation (USBR) drew a hard line at the Delta, giving those north of it a full allotment of irrigation water and those south of it little to none.

This year’s “miracle March” will give all northern California water users 100 percent of their requested Central Valley Project (CVP) allocations while limiting south-of-the-Delta users to 5 percent.

Two districts that draw water from New Melones Reservoir near Sonora – the Central San Joaquin Water Conservation District and Stockton East Water District – will receive a zero allocation from the CVP because the USBR says water levels at New Melones remain too low.

In an ironic move, the USBR also said Friday that it would begin pulse flows from the same watershed into the Stanislaus River for fish restoration projects, even though New Melones remains at 25 percent of capacity.

While better than the zero allocation San Joaquin Valley growers received in each of the last two years from agency that controls much of the water in the West, the fact that those in the north received a full allotment made growers and water officials alike irate over the decision.

What this means for growers along the west side of California’s San Joaquin Valley is very little surface water is available to grow crops America’s most prolific growing region.


Shaun Ramirez, a former grower from the Mendota area of Fresno County lost his farm, his agricultural business and his home after 2009 when the USBR began curtailing surface water to area farms.

At the time Ramirez was farming about 2,500 acres of melons in Westlands Water District when the USBR cut his water supply to 25 percent of normal. He now works for a farming company in Madera and hopes one day to return to farming, though he sounds skeptical given the state of water availability in the state.

“I dream to be able to farm again someday,” Ramirez says.

Buddy Mendes is another west side farmer who watched his allotment of Westlands Water District surface irrigation dwindle to nothing in the face of water woes that can no longer be blamed on climatic drought conditions.

“This decision is about social engineering,” Mendes said of the 5 percent allocation.

Mendes, who currently serves as the chairman of the Fresno County Board of Supervisors, has farmed the Westside for 20 years, including 35 years in the greater Riverdale area of Fresno County. He says he’s never seen conditions this bad.

Mendes blames environmental laws and biological opinions that forced the idling of Delta pumps that move water into San Luis Reservoir. Those decisions, he says, have been used by those who oppose agriculture to cause great harm to the industry.

“There is no truth in any of the biological opinions anymore,” Mendes said of the methods used by the agencies to defend the lack of water deliveries to agriculture.

“When you have 1.5 million acre feet of water going out to the ocean in the month of March alone this is no longer an issue of drought,” Mendes said.

Water supplies

The USBR announcement laid out water delivery allocations as follows:

  • Everyone north of the Sacramento/San Joaquin River Delta region and the one water district within the Delta will receive 100 percent of their allotments;
  • Wildlife refuges north and south of the Delta will receive 100 percent;
  • Municipal and industrial contractors south of the Delta will receive 55 percent of their allotments; and,
  • Agricultural contractors south of the Delta will receive 5 percent.

This does not include the San Joaquin River Exchange and Settlement Contractors, who have senior water rights and will receive 100 percent of their allocations for the first time in three years.

Steve Chedester, executive director of the Los Banos-based Exchange Contractors, said growers in the district will receive 840,000 acre feet of irrigation water to be spread over 230,000 acres of farmland.

Last year Exchange Contractors received 52 percent of their contracted water allotment. In 2014 that figure was 65 percent. This is noteworthy not only because such low allocations had never happened in the history of the Exchange Contractors, but because the contract they have with the federal government stipulates a minimum allocation of 75 percent.

State water conditions range from slightly below average to full, depending on location.

Shasta Lake – the state’s largest reservoir and the cornerstone of the federal Central Valley Project – is nearly full. April 1 storage in Shasta Lake exceeded 4 MAF; capacity of the large reservoir is 4.55 MAF.

Meanwhile, San Luis Reservoir, a critical south-of-Delta pool for both the SWP and CVP, was holding at about 1 MAF or about half of its capacity.

Water officials say San Luis Reservoir would be full by now had Delta pumping been ramped up to capacity levels during recent high river flows. That was not allowed to happen because the fish agencies feigned fish deaths had the pumps been operated at maximum allowable capacity.

Another success story from the recent rain and snow: Folsom Lake, a CVP reservoir near Sacramento, rose to over 70 percent of its 977,000 acre-foot capacity before the USBR released 25,000 acre feet for flood control measures.

Water sham

Johnny Amaral, deputy general manager for external affairs with Westlands Water District points to the contrast between the 5 percent his district will receive and the 100 percent north-of-the-Delta contractors will receive as “the best argument we have to prove that these decisions are no longer related to drought.”

Amaral called the federal government’s decision “ridiculous but entirely predictable.”

“No one can stand behind the drought anymore, not when you look at California and see that everyone north of the Delta will receive 100 percent and those of us south of the Delta get 5 percent,” Amaral continued.

For the 600,000-acre Westlands Water District that means the 238,000 acres of fallowed land will continue to grow.

“They’re deliberately trying to choke this area off of its water,” Amaral says.

San Luis & Delta-Mendota Water Authority Executive Director Jason Peltier was angry with the Bureau’s decision.

"We are furious with today’s allocation announcement,” Peltier said in a prepared statement. “At a time when water supplies have returned to normal and the major reservoirs are in flood control operations, the federal fishery agencies continue to hoard water instead of using a balanced approach that includes water for productive California farms and businesses and many of its people.”

Peltier continued: "Mother nature has given us all the water we need. There is no question that failed regulations imposed on Reclamation are not achieving their intended goals as the extreme limitations on moving water to farms and cities has had no measurable benefit to the fisheries. President Roosevelt started building this great water project 80 years ago. The mismanagement of it over the last 20 years has crippled its ability to serve thousands of California farms, people in urban areas, as well as our rural economy.”

Friant Water

Friant Division contractors will see at least 30 percent of their Class 1 allotment this year, based on early figures from the USBR and improved conditions at Millerton Lake and the San Joaquin River watershed.

Class 1 water is the first 800,000 acre feet of storage behind Friant Dam.

Additionally, Friant water users will receive an “uncontrolled season” supply of 100,000 acre feet plus an additional 85,000 acre feet of unreleased San Joaquin River Restoration flows. These will be scheduled for delivery between May 1 and May 15 to avert flood management concerns, according to the USBR.

Jason Phillips, chief executive officer with Friant Water Authority (FWA) said there is an estimated 1.4 million acre feet of water stored in the San Joaquin River watershed in the form of snow.

Stephen Ottemoeller, water resources manager for FWA, told directors at the agency’s March 24 meeting that there was a better-than-average chance that the Class 1 allocation could rise above 50 percent and may, in the right conditions, be a full allotment.

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