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Wet weather precipitates increased water allocations

Issue Date: June 1, 2005

By Christine Souza Assistant Editor California Farm Bureau

This is California's best water year since 1998.

Storms that hammered California in the past several weeks will exert a beneficial ripple effect--increased water allocations for farmers this growing season. From the Central and Imperial valleys to the Klamath Basin, the wet spring has given growers reason to breathe sighs of relief.

As a result of recent wet weather in Northern California and in the San Joaquin River Basin, the Central Valley Project water allocation for agricultural contractors south of the delta has been increased from 75 percent to 85 percent of federal contract deliveries, according to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.

"We haven't seen an allocation of 85 percent since 1998, so it is a big benefit to the area because it means that we stop using groundwater as a supplement to the short canal water supply that we've been getting over the years," said Fresno County farmer Dan Errotabere, who grows almonds, garlic, cantaloupe and other crops. "I was surprised that we went all of the way up to 85 percent. I was hoping that we would get to 80 percent, so 85 percent is a nice bonus."

Errotabere, who is a member of the Fresno County Farm Bureau and serves on the Westlands Water District board of directors, said he looks forward to using a water source other than groundwater.

"Using the allocated water helps in that it is less expensive than using groundwater and the quality of the water is better than groundwater, which is typically saltier. The allocated water is just a better source of water and helps improve the fertility of the land," Errotabere said.

Jeff McCracken, spokesman for the Bureau of Reclamation, explains that California has not experienced such a great abundance of wet weather for many years.

"The weather certainly has played the big role. One of the things that helps us is we don't have to pump the water (through the delta) to get to the 85 percent because the water is already south of the delta in many cases," McCracken said. "We still have limitations on how much water we can export, but the federal portion of San Luis Reservoir is full. So with all of these releases that we are making for flood control, there is really no place we can put it. We can't really pump it south; our reservoir down there is already full."

Last week, the bureau increased releases from its reservoirs to river channels to accommodate heavy inflows from Sierra snow melt. People using rivers for recreation were warned of changing flow conditions and were cautioned about rivers running higher, faster and colder than usual for this time of year.

Search-and-rescue units throughout the state were geared up last week for the fast, frigid stream flows. Emergency service agencies were putting employees through extra training and deploying equipment and personnel to the swiftest watercourses.

Another element that can be factored into this year's plentiful water supply for Westside farmers is basic supply and demand. The plentiful rainfall this spring itself diminished farmers' general demand for water, McCracken said.

Imperial Valley farmers, who depend on water from the Colorado River, also fared well this water season. Interior Secretary Gale Norton decided to maintain the 8.23 million acre-foot allocation routinely released to California, Arizona and Nevada because precipitation yielded 10 percent more runoff than expected.

Norton's decision to maintain Colorado River water deliveries came after she considered making possible adjustments to the formula for moving water between the reservoirs upon which California water users depend.

Federal authorities will cap California's pumping and distribution allotment of Colorado River water at 4.4 million acre-feet this year, in accordance with new federal goals. McCracken explained that California routinely pumped closer to 6 million acre-feet per year from the Colorado River before 2004.

"California used to get 6 million acre-feet every year but all of a sudden Arizona said, 'We finished building the pipes so we can now take our full allocation,'" McCracken said. "(Former Interior Assistant Secretary) Bennett Raley and Secretary Norton worked on a plan to try to get California down to its contracted 4.4 million-acre feet, which was agreed to."

The increased precipitation entering the Colorado River is replenishing low water levels in the reservoirs and has given the Bureau of Reclamation a chance to recover lost water storage.

"The long-range benefit to California irrigators who get their water from the Colorado River is the big storage of the Colorado River system is going to be more reliable once the reservoir is recovered," McCracken.

Klamath Water Project irrigators who get their water from Upper Klamath Lake also are satisfied with this year's powerful showers, although the weather could prove to be a double-edged sword.

"It has been raining a lot in the Klamath Basin, almost enough to change the water year. The water year is based on how much water flows into Upper Klamath Lake and that change in water year would have been bad for the farmers," McCracken said. "The designation would have gone from a 'dry' year to a 'normal' year and that is bad, because a 'normal' year requires more water downstream. When those things generally happen, the farmers are left holding the bag."

Klamath Basin farmers, who experienced a devastating water shut-off in 2001, have been nervous about every water year since. McCracken said that this year, however, irrigators are likely to be granted a water allocation of 75 percent.

"Some of the Klamath farmers got involved in the water bank. They put much of their water in this bank for fish, and for that they get paid. So I think we are going to have a decent year," McCracken said. "It should be a good year for the fishery and for our customers."

(Christine Souza is a reporter for Ag Alert. She may be contacted at csouza@cfbf.com.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item. (Top)






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