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SJV water crisis averted—for now

Pumps moving water through the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta into Central and Southern California are operating once again and another major water crisis has been averted — for now — on the West Side of the San Joaquin Valley.

With less than a month’s water supply available to the 600,000-acre Westlands Water District, the federal Bureau of Reclamation restarted its pumps June 12, resuming water flows into San Luis Reservoir near Los Banos, Calif.

The State Department of Water Resources turned off its pumps supplying the State Water Project (SWP) in late May to prevent the deaths of tiny, 1.5 inch juvenile Delta Smelt minnows. The bureau pumps, supplying the Central Valley Project (CVP) had been moving only minimal water when the state shut down its pumps, but the bureau stopped pumping as well.

When it became apparent Westlands Water District and other water users south of the Delta were facing a major water shortage crisis, the bureau ramped up its pumps after a 12-day state shutdown.

The feds were pumping at a rate of 4,200 cfs. The state turned its pumps back on, but only at 750 cfs. The pumping capacity of both stations is 10,000 cfs per day.

CVP is one of the world’s largest water storage and transport systems. Its 22 reservoirs have a combined storage of 11 million acre-feet, of which 7 million acre-feet are delivered in an average year. The SWP’s 20 major reservoirs can hold 5.8 million acre-feet, with annual deliveries averaging up to 3 million acre-feet.

About 7.5 million acre-feet of water from the two projects moves through the Delta annually.

The early June shutdown of the pumps was only the third time the pumps have been turned off. The last time was in 2004, to block saltwater flows after a levee break at a Delta area known as the Jones Tract. In 1999, state officials shut the pumps for about 10 days because of endangered fish issues.

The two pumping stations control at least the partial water supply for 25 million people, two-thirds of California’s population, and 5 million acres of farmland.

Most of the water from the state and federal water projects moves out of the Delta and into San Luis. Its capacity is 2 million acre-feet of water. However, it was only at about a fourth of that when the feds turned on the pumps again. It was the beginning of the heavy irrigation season when the state shut down its pumps.

The reservoir had been dropping 2 feet per day, and the government was worried about dam safety. Water levels had also reached a critical level for intakes which supply water to Bay area cities.

When the state turned off the pumps to protect the smelts, DWR said there would be no impact on state water users and that the shutdown would last no longer than 10 days. It lasted almost two weeks and during that time farmers in Westlands said unless the water was turned back on, they were facing a crisis equal to the January citrus freeze that resulted in $800 million in crop losses.

Tom Birmingham, general manager of Westlands, called the state’s no impact proclamation “irresponsible.” Fresno County, Calif., grower Mark Borba called the state’s claim of no harm “unbelievable.” He added, “Everyone knew it would have a huge impact the day it was announced.”

Both made their comments at a meeting near Five Points, Calif., in mid-June at the largest gathering of Westlands farmers anyone could recall. There were more than 100 people on hand to hear that the bureau had restarted its pumps and another water crisis was averted for the moment.

Farmers went back to farming. John Diener and Dan Errotabere both farm near Five Points, Calif. If farmers could plan for a disaster, they did.

Diener started making his 2006-2007 cropping plans last fall when it became likely that the Sierra Nevada snowpack would produce woefully short irrigation water supplies this season.

“At that time, they were talking about a 35 percent allocation,” said Diener. With a dismal water outlook, he began penciling in winter crops like wheat and safflower on his farm and reduced the acreage of summer crops like tomatoes and cotton. He did not want to get into the summer of 2007 and have no water or be forced to purchase expensive water.

“I obviously will not make as much money this year with the crops I selected, but I will not lose money,” said Diener, who has wells and relied on them to irrigate his almonds.

“We basically planned out ’07 farming operation on the basis of 50 percent water deliveries,” said Errotabere.

Neither of them requested that Westlands search out surplus water to purchase.

However, Westlands had grower requests to purchase 135,000 acre-feet of supplemental water from willing sellers. Westlands has bought only 56,000 acre-feet.

Westlands contracts with the Bureau of Reclamation to buy 1.15 million acre-feet of water annually. However, it seldom gets a full allocation. Last season was one of the few. This season allocation was only 50 percent of the contract, which has been more the norm in recent years.

Since 1992, numerous state and federal laws and regulations have resulted in more than 1 million acre-feet of CVP water being taken annually from San Joaquin Valley farmers and reallocated for environmental purposes. The contract, which calls for 1.15 million acre-feet of water per year, is sufficient to provide slightly more than two acre-feet of water annually for every acre of irrigated land in Westlands. That is at best a minimal amount of water to irrigate the high value crops in the district and growers either have to reduce acreage to meet the water supply, buy expensive surplus water when available, or pump from wells. The later is more expensive than canal water and often well water is poor quality.

Birmingham said the district negotiated for surplus water with several water agencies north of the Delta. However, the district did not go through with the purchases due to the uncertainty of getting that surplus water through the Delta in time for use this season.

With the shutdown of the pumps, Westlands had reached a point where Birmingham said the district was concerned about getting its 50 percent allocation through the Delta; much less any purchased surplus water.

The district also purchased water from the SWP south of the Delta, but Birmingham said those who sold water were not certain they would be able to meet contractual obligations for that water with delays of state water into San Luis.

According to Diener, the inability to secure surplus will mean about 60 farms in Westlands will run out of water before finishing their crops. Already, some lower value row crops like cotton have been abandoned. Growers may preclude cutting summer alfalfa to preserve what water supplies they now have to finish permanent crops.

At the height of the water shutdown crisis there was at least one auction for a very small supply of surplus water, 100 acre-feet. The sale netted the seller $510 per acre-feet, more than five times what it cost for allocated Westlands water and at least twice as much as what surplus water was selling for earlier in the season. The sale was the talk of coffee shops and had cell phones buzzing.

“There is no legal crop in California you can grow profitably with $510 water,” said Riverdale, Calif., farmer Mark Borba.

Kings County, Calif., farmer and Westlands board member Ted Sheely took a different perspective on the high-priced water. “If you have a 2,000-pound pistachio crop on the trees and you need a little water to finish the crop, you bet I’d pay $500 for water to bring that crop in.”

“This whole thing with the Delta pumps shutdown has created a total air of uncertainty,” said Borba, who is one of several garlic producers in valley who contracts with the major garlic processors in Gilroy to grow the crop.

“We are to plant the garlic crop in August and carry it for 12 months. We spent a lot of time talking to the garlic people in Gilroy when all this came down to assure them we would have water for the crop,” said Borba.

Westlands’ 600 growers produce more than 60 crops on 600,000 acres valued at $1.4 billion annually.

Sheely, who farms near Strathmore and Huron and is also on the Westlands board, left the grower-packed meeting at the district’s West Side offices to meet with his insurance agent to see if he could collect insurance if he abandoned 450 acres of cotton in the face of uncertainty about his water supply for his permanent crops, pistachios, and grapes.

“The devil was in the details. Insurance would not pay because it was a judge who the insurance company said cut the water, not the fish,” said Sheely.

Radical environmentalists have taken the state to court over the survival of the endangered species Delta smelt. The issue is before federal district judge Oliver Wanger in Fresno who has ruled that the state and federal water agencies are killing smelt based on a faulty management plan. He wants that plan rewritten. The pumps were voluntarily shut down for fear the judge would issue a legal order turning them off.

However, when the pumps were turned back on, the judge did not issue an order to shut down the pumps again in late June to save more smelt.

“I am reasonably optimistic that we will get through this season with enough water to finish the crops. As of today there are no restrictions in Westlands,” said Sheely. “Before the bureau turned its pumps back on, it was chaos. The district was looking at voluntary or involuntary water curtailment because it was running out of water approaching the height of the irrigation season.”

Ironically, it was the water temperature in the Delta that saved the day. When water temperatures reach 77 degrees, the juvenile smelt cannot survive; therefore pumping becomes irrelevant to the minnow’s survival. The fish usually move closer to the San Francisco Bay when the water temperature warms in the Delta.

“I did not plow up the 450 acres of cotton. However, I know there were growers who did not plant cotton this year because of the water situation. It is a scary situation with the constant threat of the pumps being shut down.

Most growers had Sheely’s confidence they could finish crops in the ground. However, there are concerns about post harvest irrigation, especially for permanent crops like almonds. Fall water availability all depends on how quickly the water in San Luis is replenished.

About 10 percent of Westlands is in almonds.

“The experts say almonds require about 9 inches of post harvest irrigation to make a crop the next year or the crop will be reduced by 50 percent,” said Borba.

“Without that water you are talking about a possible crop loss of at least $1,500 per acre with $1 almond prices. If prices are $2 per pound like they have been the past few years, the loss from not having that 9 inches of water is $3,000 — and the state says there would be no impact of the water cutoff?,” he said.

“You cannot just turn on and turn off the Delta pumps and it not make any difference,” said Borba.

Well water is not a good option for almonds because most of it contains boron and that damages almonds. Some growers are expected to use that water anyway. Others are blending canal water with well water to keep the trees healthy for next season.

“Boron or no boron, if you have to use well water to keep almonds alive, you use well water,” Sheely said.

The Delta, formed by the confluence of the Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers, has long been a center of controversy as both the largest estuary on the West Coast and hub of the state’s water system.

This water crisis was caused by the tiny Delta smelt, reportedly an introduced species, although environmentalists call it native. It is only about 3 inches long at maturity. Farmers agree the smelt is in danger of extinction, but they do not believe shutting down the pumps during a certain time of year has as much impact as other factors.

Birmingham said scientists say only 1 percent of the smelt population is affected by the pumps. 85 percent is from other factors.

This ranges from cities dumping wastewater into the Delta, to illegal toxic chemical dumping, to a lack of food for the smelt, to smelt predators, and to the fact that in contrast to big export Delta pumps — farmers in the Delta do not have fish screens on their pumps.

“The Delta is broken,” said Birmingham. “We have been saying that for 10 years it needs fixing. You don’t fix it by turning the Delta pumps off and on. That may be convenient, but it does not solve the smelt problem.”

Errotabere says that the June 2007 smelt crisis demonstrates once again the “inflexibility” in the current state water conveyance system through the Delta.

“There is a lot of discussion and arguments about how to solve the problem of having a reliable conveyance system for moving water through the Delta for the benefit of agriculture, cities, and the environment.”

However, so far the talk has produced no reasonable Delta fixes.

Stuart Woolf, second generation West Side farmer and president of Woolf Farming in Huron, said it is “failed public policy that a minnow can control the livelihood” of thousands of farmers and millions of people who live and work south of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

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