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Nervous California Growers See|No Relief From Multi-Year Drought

FRESNO, Calif. (CN) - Public agencies in California that contract with the state for water can expect more water than last year, but the drought remains dire for farmers who are barely hanging onto their crops.

The 29 public agencies that contract for water with California through the State Water Project can expect 15 percent of their requested deliveries - up from the 10 percent allocation predicted by the Department of Water Resources at the end of 2014.

Last year at the same time, the DWR reduced its initial allocation to contractors from 5 percent to zero - the first such allocation in the 54-year history of the State Water Project. Thanks to storms in February and March, managers were allowed to increase the allocation back to 5 percent.

Kern County Water Agency, which serves most of the agricultural customers of the project, is expecting 150,000 acre-feet of water from the state this year, up from the 50,000 acre-feet the agency received last year.

An acre-foot is enough water to cover an acre 1 foot deep. It's roughly the amount an average family uses in a year.

"That's 100,000 acre-feet more than last year. But to put it into perspective, if you used all of it for delivery for farms, you're probably looking at enough water to irrigate 20,000 acres of farmland. We have probably have something on the order of 600,000 acres that receive some amount of State Water Project supplies," Curtis Creel, assistant manager of Kern County Water Agency, told Courthouse News.

"It's not a trivial amount of water. It's a big difference from last year from the standpoint of direct supplies. But as you can see, it's not nearly enough to meet the needs of the county," Creel said.

Not all of the water the agency receives goes to farmland. About 10 percent of it is for industry and municipal needs, Creel said.

No matter how much water is delivered, State Water Project contractors are required to pay for 100 percent of the amount of water included in their contracts.

"It is hard to ignore the fact that we are only receiving a portion of the water we are paying for," Kern County Water Agency Board of Directors President Ted Page said in a statement.

"Kern County's water 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. We are hopeful the allocations will continue to improve during the remainder of the water year," Page said.

Under wetter conditions in past years, the 29 state contractors received more water from the project. In 2013, the final allocation was 35 percent of requested water amounts. In 2012, it was 65 percent, and in 2011, it was 80 percent, according to the Department of Water Resources.

"If we can get up to the neighborhood of an 80 percent allocation, generally we're in pretty good shape. That means that some of the districts would actually be able to put a little bit of water into the ground to store for another dry year," Creel said.

This year, however, farmers are still in "water crisis mode," which means they have to find ways to reduce demand or find additional supplies of water, Creel said.


Like last year, growers may have to cut back some of their trees so they take less water, or fallow certain crops. In some cases, farmers could be forced to take permanent crops out of production several years early and plant new trees in those areas, Creel said.

Last year, to offset water shortages and low State Water Project allocations, farms and businesses relied on water previously stored in the ground, a practice called groundwater banking.

Even if the state has average precipitation this year, the water crisis will not be over, Creel said.

"Just like with your savings bank account, if you've been drawing on your reserves, you need to put money back into your bank to save for your contingency. If you have an average amount of income that just meets your needs, you can't put it back into your savings. The same thing will be true here. We've got to put water back into those banks to make sure we have them for when the next drought occurs," he said.

Districts that receive water from the federal Central Valley Project are in a similar position. The Central Valley Project, the single largest supplier of agricultural irrigation water in California, is not expected to release its water allocations for the year until the end of February.

"While we were encouraged by storms in December, this very dry January illustrates just how precarious our water supplies can become," said David Murillo, Mid-Pacific Regional Director of the Bureau of Reclamation, which operates the Central Valley Project. "Since 2015 may be another critically dry water year, we are being extremely cautious as we develop initial operation plans and allocations for CVP water contractors."

The Central Valley Project supplies water to California farmers who produce more than half of the fruit, vegetables and nuts grown in the United States. Last year, many of the agricultural water services contractors received an allocation of zero percent.

The Friant division, which delivers water to more than 1 million acres of irrigable farmland on the east side of the southern San Joaquin Valley, received a zero allocation for the first time in the history of the project.

The San Joaquin River water at Millerton Lake was instead sent to wildlife refuges and west side growers, whose river rights predate construction of the Central Valley Project, to meet the Bureau of Reclamation's contractual obligations.

In the late 1930s, the so-called "exchange contractors" exchanged water received under their rights from the San Joaquin River for water delivered from the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta through the Delta-Mendota Canal by the Bureau of Reclamation.

If the Bureau is unable to satisfy the contract through the water from the Delta-Mendota Canal, then the agency must provide water to the exchange contractors from the Friant Dam.

"Last year, for the first time in the 65-year life of the exchange, the Bureau was not able to make substitute supplies fully available to the exchange contractors," Friant Water Authority General Manager Ronald Jacobsma told Courthouse News. "So the Bureau released water out of Millerton to the exchange contractors, which basically drained our watershed and left us with a zero water supply allocation."

The lack of water affected thousands of people, with many rural residents losing their water supply. An estimated 900 domestic wells in Tulare County went dry, Jacobsma said.

Those with agricultural land were forced to scramble to find water to save their trees. It was estimated that the area could lose up to 50,000 acres of citrus crops due to the lack of water.

The exchange contractors facilitated an exchange of 27,000 acre-feet of water from San Luis Reservoir to Friant and sold approximately 13,000 acre-feet back to the Friant division. Some of the districts in the Friant Water Authority pumped their groundwater into a canal to allow it to be moved into an area that did not have any water supplies, Jacobsma said.

Using a variety of methods and programs, the Friant Water Authority, member districts and cooperative agencies were able to get around 80,000 acre-feet into the system, which was "just enough to keep permanent plantings going," Jacobsma said.

As in Kern County, growers had to take management steps to preserve their trees, including shelling out some extra cash, even if it meant producing less crop at the time.

Growers "were spending $1,000 to $1,500 an acre-foot to try to keep their trees alive," Jacobsma said. "It really impacted people's bottom lines. People were willing to spend some extra money to keep the trees alive and praying that we would have better water supply this year so they could cover their losses. Unfortunately, this year is looking too much like last year right now."

The difference, unfortunately, is that last year growers had a little extra water to draw upon. With groundwater levels dropping, it will be tough for growers not to have significant losses if at least a moderate supply of water is not generated, Jacobsma said.

"Farming is the significant employer around here. If you lose that, you take out a lion's share of the economy and it's going to have a multiplier effect. A lot of businesses rely on that economic base and we would face escalating unemployment and the need for public assistance," he said.

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