May 3, 2016

California Water Situation: Paltry Allocation for Some Despite ‘Normal’ Winter

The big El Niño delivered some hefty rain to parts of California and several different storms throughout the state.  At the end of this water year (Oct. 1, 2015 –Sept. 30, 2016), California is on tap to receive fairly normal precipitation and snowfall and water content in the snow pack are also near normal.  Some areas of the state—mostly north—received above average rainfall, while some areas to the south are still in what are called “drought conditions.”

What that has led to is a very unequal distribution of contracted water from the State Water Project, the Federal Bureau of Reclamation and water districts throughout the state.

In March, the State Water Project said it will deliver 45 percent of requested water to agricultural and urban water agencies, which is the highest allocation it has made since 2012.  With additional March, April and May rains, that number could rise.

Eastside farmers in the Central Valley Project’s Friant system have been told they will receive just 30 percent of their water this year.  Those relying on the New Melones Reservoir on the Stanislaus River will receive a zero allocation.

In early April, the Federal Bureau of Reclamation noted that farmers north of the Sacramento–San Joaquin River Delta, which drains a large portion of the Sierra Nevada, will receive 100 percent of their irrigation water.  But farmers south of the delta, in the San Joaquin Valley, will receive just 5 percent of their irrigation water deliveries.  For the last two years, they received zero.

At the same time, federal officials announced that South Bay cities in the vicinity of San Jose will receive 55 percent of their contracted water amounts this summer—up from 25 percent last year—from the Central Valley Project.

The Contra Costa County water district, which is north of San Jose, but southwest of Sacramento, was told it would receive 100 percent of its contracted water this year.

Though federal and state officials do not and have not revealed the metrics used to determine allocations for various regions, somewhere in the calculations are the water depths in the state’s reservoirs.  In general, those big reservoirs in Northern California, such as Shasta, Folsom and Lake Oroville, are at 100 percent of capacity, while many reservoirs in the eastern foothills of the San Joaquin Valley are at much lower levels.

Just like with the State Water Project, Bureau of Reclamation officials can up the allocation as the year continues and rain collects, but its initial announcement with its range of allocations from 5 percent to 100 percent, was met with swift condemnation by many.


Western Growers President and CEO Tom Nassif:

“For months before the El Niño rain and snow arrived, we and many others pleaded with the federal government to capture and store as much water as possible when massive storm runoff reached the Delta.  We have seen huge flows into, and out of, the Delta this year.  Today’s announcement of a measly 5 percent allocation to farms and cities in the San Joaquin Valley, contrasted with the State Water Project’s 45 percent allocation, provides dark confirmation that a policy of destruction of farmland is in place.  Already, well over 600,000 acre feet of water that could have been diverted to San Luis Reservoir has been lost to the ocean, and projections suggest that number will reach 1.5 million acre feet if common sense is not restored.  The drought has hit farmers, farmworkers and thousands of families hard, but now with the northern reservoirs filled and spilling water to make room for spring snowmelt, the federal government has very deliberately chosen to deny available relief to thousands of Californians in the San Joaquin Valley.  This action represents more than a failure of common sense.  A government that deliberately chokes off water for its people is a government that has lost its moral compass.”


California Farm Bureau President Paul Wenger:

“We’ll never know how much water might have been available this summer, if we had captured more of the water that flowed to sea at the height of the El Niño storm surges.  That lost opportunity will haunt rural California throughout the summer.  In some ways, it’s appropriate that this announcement of continued water shortages came on April Fool’s Day.  We’re fooling ourselves if we think our current water system is adequate to meet all the demands on it, and we’re fooling ourselves if we don’t move quickly to address that inadequacy.  One thing is clear: What’s happening now isn’t working for fish and it isn’t working for people.  We haven’t been able to operate our existing system to take best advantage of storms when they arrive, which leaves us even more vulnerable to the next dry year.  Farm Bureau will continue to press for improved flexibility in both our water system and the regulations that govern it.”


Shane Hunt, public affairs official for the US Bureau of Reclamation’s mid-Pacific region:

“We’re the federal government, we do not play April Fool’s Day.”


California Rep. Jim Costa (CA-16):

“Sadly, today the Valley is faced with what we all feared and I cautioned against since rains began in January. Despite the El Niño conditions, above average rainfall and an average snowpack in the mountains, today farmers in the San Joaquin Valley have been told they can expect to receive a 5 percent water allocation from the federal water project.  If state and federal agencies had followed my consistent direction and better managed the water in the system, there would have been a different and more positive announcement made today. Instead, as a direct result of the federal agencies failure to act on my recommendations, more land will go fallow, farm workers will be jobless, and the challenges that San Joaquin Valley drought stricken communities face will continue.  This Administration should acknowledge that during this water year, after a four year drought that has caused severe impacts to the people of the San Joaquin Valley, the water projects have been operated for the primary purpose of protecting fisheries and not for the needs of the people of the Valley. This is the Administration’s failure and further proves the necessity for Congressional action to fix this broken water system.  This was avoidable and the residents of the Valley deserve much better.”


Johnny Amaral, spokesman for Westlands Water District: 

“At some point, elected officials are going to have to make a decision about whether this region of the country, the Central Valley, and what we do here and what we grow here, is worth preserving and protecting.  I happen to think this area is worth fighting for.  What’s happening is wrong, and we will keep fighting to change this.”

He further said:  “This is the most productive land on the planet.  We have the perfect soil, the perfect climate.  All it takes is water, and it’s a growing machine.  People who don’t like what we do, use phrases like, ‘They are irrigating a desert.’  Well, the whole damn state of California is a desert.”


California Sen. Dianne Feinstein:

She called the allocations “further proof of the need for short- and long-term solutions to get through this drought,” and urged Senate action on her legislation, which among other things, would ease rules on pumping.


Mike Wade, executive director of the California Farm Water Coalition:

“If federal water allocations continue at these disastrous levels, more of the food that consumers buy will be grown on foreign soil that does not have the food safety and security requirements of California-grown food.”


Fresno County Agricultural Commissioner Les Wright:



Jason Peltier, executive director of the San Luis & Delta-Mendota Water Authority, which includes Westlands:

“We are furious.”


Fresno County Supervisor Buddy Mendes:

“A complete joke.”


Sarah Woolf, whose family are major Westside growers:

“The outrage is because we see all this water, we see that we’ve had decent rainfall and a snowpack.  But if you went in and asked the Department of Water Resources and the Bureau of Reclamation how they make their decisions, you can’t get an answer. There’s no accountability.”


And the opposite view:

Jon Rosenfield, a fish biologist at the Bay Institute, an environmental group.

“The fact is (federal water authorities) are delivering too much water (to farmers), operating at the very maximum limits set by the Fish and Wildlife Service to protect species about to go extinct.”