Central Valley Project Is ‘Broken,’ California Water Managers Say | Courthouse News Service
Tuesday, November 28, 2023
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Tuesday, November 28, 2023 | Back issues
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Central Valley Project Is ‘Broken,’ California Water Managers Say

SACRAMENTO (CN) - Federal delivery of zero water to the Central Valley this year threatens the "potential devastation (of) tens of thousands of acres," state water authorities say. Water managers say the federal program designed to provide water to the Central Valley is broken.

For the second straight year, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation announced that the Central Valley Project will not receive any federal water.

"Last year we had a zero allocation at Friant and scrambled to make some water available through some district programs, water purchases, groundwater banks and groundwater pumping, and we were able to keep most of the orchards alive," Friant Water Authority General Manager Ronald Jacobsma told Courthouse News.

"But this year we're going in with less by way of reserves both from a water supply perspective and from a financial perspective for many growers. We are looking at potential devastation to tens of thousands of acres, particularly citrus."

The federally run Central Valley Project was devised in 1933 to provide irrigation and municipal water to much of California's Central Valley by regulating and storing water in reservoirs in the northern half of the state and transporting it to the water-poor San Joaquin Valley through a system of dams and reservoirs and 500 miles of canals.

During dry years, the project is unable to make all of its deliveries and the agricultural sector ends up on the losing end of water cuts.

This year, all of the project's agricultural water service contractors were allocated 0 percent of their contract quantity. The municipal and industrial contractors will receive either 25 percent of their historic use or enough water to meet their health and safety needs, according to the Bureau of Reclamation.

"We are bracing for a potential fourth year of severe drought, and this low initial allocation is yet another indicator of the dire situation," Reclamation Mid-Pacific Regional Director David Murillo said. "Reclamation and the Department of the Interior will continue to work with the state of California and our water users to do everything possible to increase water deliveries from the project as we move into yet another difficult year. Our economy and environment depend on it."

The drought is not solely to blame for the water shortage situation, water authorities say.

"The federal government's Central Valley Project is broken," said Don Peracchi, president of Westlands Water District. "Its failure threatens the continued coordination of local, state and federal water agencies in operating the modern water system on which all of California depends. And as a result, some of the most vital elements of the state's economy are being allowed to wither and die."

Although it is easy to blame the drought, the project "was designed and built precisely for the purpose of alleviating the effects of far more serious droughts than what we are experiencing today," Peracchi said.

He said that from 1987 through 1992, in the midst of another prolonged drought, the Bureau of Reclamation was able to deliver 100 percent of its allocations for the first three years, followed by 50 percent, and then 25 percent the next two years.


"Contrast that with the failure we are facing today. In 2013, a mere two years after the torrential rains we all experienced in 2011, the Central Valley Project was only able to deliver 20 percent of its normal supplies to farmers south of the Delta. And in 2014, Reclamation was not only unable to deliver any water to farmers, it could not even meet the 'core demands' of its contractual obligation to senior water right holders on the San Joaquin River and its statutory obligation to manage wetlands. Now, in 2015, we are told that the water supply conditions will be even worse than in 2014," he said.

Peracchi said new federal rules and regulations restricting the flow of water contribute to "the human suffering" that will come with the inadequate allocations.

"What is particularly tragic is that these new rules and regulations, which are intended to benefit threatened fish species, are based on conjecture and unproven theories that have done nothing to protect fish populations. Instead, fish populations continue to decline," he said.

Jacobsma agreed, saying that a harder look needs to be taken at environmentalists' priorities for water use.

"Agriculture and urban folks are under constant scrutiny to be as efficient with their water as they can. And yet, with the environment, it seems we just throw water at the problem, thinking that will fix it," he said.

"Is that being good stewards of limited water supply? To see increasingly larger amounts of water being dedicated for environmental purposes that do not seem to be making any fishery improvements at a huge economic expense to agriculture, to communities, and to the very economic fiber of the San Joaquin Valley - the breadbasket of the world, so to speak - it does not seem prudent."

The water agencies are working with the Bureau of Reclamation, trying to maximize water supplies and find a reasonable balance so that water can be shared for urban needs, critical agricultural needs, as well as environmental needs, Jacobsma said.

State Sen. Andy Vidak, who represents Fresno, Kern, Kings and Tulare counties, said it is "outrageous that state and federal bureaucrats are putting fish before suffering families."

"Instead of desperately needed water flowing to the Valley, they continue to flush this precious resource out to the ocean," he said.

The Bureau of Reclamation said that the zero allocations could go up if the area gets more rain and snow.

California farmers who get water from a different, state-operated system got a bit of good news Monday when the California Department of Water Resources announced that it would increase its initial water allocation from 15 percent to 20 percent .

Last year, State Water Project deliveries were 5 percent of requested amounts for all customers. Approximately 25 million Californians and nearly 1 million acres of irrigated farmland - mostly in Kern and Kings counties - rely on the project for at least some of their water.

"We're grateful that close coordination among water and wildlife agencies in managing limited runoff this winter will afford State Water Project contractors a slight increase in their supplies," said DWR Director Mark Cowin. "We're confident that this water, delivered to local districts throughout the state, will help offset some economic harm of this extended drought."

Kern County Water Agency Board of Directors Ted Page said that any increase in water supplies is welcome.

"Kern County's groundwater reserves have been severely diminished due to dry conditions and regulatory restrictions imposed on water flowing through the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta to areas throughout California," he said. "While not enough for all the needs of Kern County growers, a 20 percent allocation could mean less likelihood of running out of water this year. We are hopeful the allocations will continue to improve during the remainder of this water year."

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