By DEREK FLEMING
SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) – For the first time since 2006, many farmers in California’s Central Valley will have the water their crops need. But for many farmers in the south part of the valley, the good news leaves them treading water.
Last year, Westlands Water District farmers received only 5 percent of their water allocation, and were told the water could not be used during the irrigation season. This forced them to fallow hundreds of thousands of acres.
But this year, news of an increased water allotment came too late to help.
“For farmers who had to make planting decisions several months ago, (Tuesday’s) announcement of an increase in supply comes too late in the season to aid their operations,” Westlands said in a statement Wednesday.
Westlands, which stretches east of Interstate 5 from Firebaugh to Kettleman City, is one of five irrigation districts responsible for water resource management in California. The district is considered to be the nation’s most productive farming region.
In February and March, U.S. Bureau of Reclamation informed agricultural water users south of the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, including Westlands, they would receive 65 percent of their water allocation. Most other state users will receive 100 percent of the water they need.
Ryan Jacobson, chief executive director of the Fresno County Farm Bureau, said the decision to allocate 100 percent water should have come sooner.
“Mother Nature gave us a very bountiful year,” Jacobson said. “This was one of the top five years in the last 130, and yet it took this long to make a decision. The system is broken and it needs to be worked on.”
Jacobson said the drought has been portrayed as “driven by Mother Nature,” but the primary cause of past decisions not to allocate water is in fact biological opinions and the impact of federal policy on water resources in California.
The updated allocation came after a favorable March 30 review of the Sierra snowpack, a major contributor to California’s reservoirs. The California Department of Water Resources reports that snowpack is at 164 percent of historical average this year.
“I am encouraged by the increased allocation and hope such decisions will be determined earlier moving forward,” Rep. David Valadao, R-Hanford, said in a statement. “Access to a clean, reliable water supply is the lifeblood of the Central Valley’s booming agricultural economy, and is imperative to the everyday lives of all valley families.”
With the allocation announcement, the Department of Water Resources recommended limiting groundwater pumping and to use surface water supplies whenever possible to encourage the long-term sustainability of aquifers.
Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno, said in a statement Tuesday that attention must be paid to storage and delivery solutions moving forward.
“While I applaud today’s announcement, there is no denying that California’s water system is broken, and further action must be taken to move California’s water system into the 21st century,” Costa said. “Investments need to be made to build water storage and fix broken water infrastructure, so that more water can be captured during years with above-average rain and snowfall.”
On April 7, Gov. Jerry Brown announced an end to emergency drought restrictions in most of California. Fresno, Kings, Tulare and Tuolumne counties will continue under emergency relief to allow for financing of groundwater drinking projects.
According to the governor’s website, the drought that began in the winter of 2011 is estimated to have killed 100 million trees and severely impacted groundwater resources in rural communities.
A recent report by the Public Policy Institute of California titled “Water Stress and a Changing San Joaquin Valley” states that over the last 30 years, nearly 2 million more acre-feet of water is pumped out of groundwater reservoirs than is replaced each year.
In wet years like this past winter, these underground aquifers can be replenished by spreading floodwater onto active and fallow farmland. The California Water Institute estimates that 300,000 acre-feet per year could be added to underground aquifers in this manner.
In 2014, the California Legislature enacted the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, which provides guidelines and recommendations for creation of groundwater reservoirs and is intended to protect the long-term sustainability of California’s aquifers.
The Department of Water Resources was required to enact regulations in accordance with the act in June 2016.