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Feds Boost Water to Central Valley Farmers. Is it Too Late?
gvw_edward_smith
By Edward Smith
Published 2 weeks ago on
June 26, 2024

The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation increased its water allocation to south-of Delta users from 40% to 50% on Tuesday, June 25, 2024. Valley farmers and water district leaders say the boost should have come earlier. (GV Wire Composite/Paul Marshall)

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Better-than-expected water supplies prompted the federal government to increase the water it gives to farmers in the Central Valley on Tuesday.

The latest boost from the Bureau of Reclamation grants water districts 50% of their allotment, up from 40% earlier. But farmers hoped to get the increase earlier.

“Our family farms and downstream communities rely on meaningful and timely allocations for the water they contract and pay for to grow the food that feeds the world, ” said Rep. David Valadao (R-Kings County). “While I am grateful for this welcomed increase from Reclamation, it’s frustrating that we could have had this allocation back in February to give farmers proper time to plan their operations for the year.”

By June, Most Farming Decisions Already Made

The bureau in February only gave farmers 15% of their contracted amount, despite an above-average snowpack. A storm in early March further solidified the Sierra Nevada reserve, bringing snow levels statewide to 104% of average.

A decent water allocation in late June means increasing water to farmers who have already made most decisions of what they’re planting months ago, said Ryan Jacobsen, CEO of the Fresno County Farm Bureau.

Getting an earlier allocation could have meant more crops planted, Jacobsen said.

Water users considered “north of the Delta” received a 100% allocation in March.

Combined with the record rains from the 2022-23 water year, Jacobsen said the level of water in the San Luis Reservoir would have more than justified an amount higher than the original 15%.

“When you get allocations that are past the early part, the mid part of February, most of our planning is already in process and being done at that point,” Jacobsen said. “So, not a lot of changes can take place for that current crop year.”

Westlands: ‘We Need a More Collaborative Approach’

As California’s era-defining Sustainable Groundwater Management Act comes into effect and limits groundwater usage, farmers on Fresno County’s westside continue to reduce water usage, says Allison Febbo, general manager of Westlands Water District.

After last year’s record water year, farmers put more than 390,000 acre-feet of water back into the ground, according to a news release from Westlands.

Febbo called for the federal government to work more with farmers in determining how much water they will get for the year.

“The low water supply allocations announced earlier in this contract year, after a relatively wet winter that filled the reservoirs and lifted the state officially out of drought conditions, single-handedly demonstrate the critical and urgent need to improve water management transparency and accountability in the state of California,” Febbo said. “We need a more collaborative and transparent approach.”

Jacobsen said an earlier allocation could have resulted in more water put back into the ground, restoring aquifers.

Endangered Species Act Forced Farmers to Pump More: Congress

Days ahead of the increase, members of Congress — including Valadao and Jim Costa (D-Fresno) — penned a letter to Reclamation asking for the June increase.

Water restrictions dictated by the Endangered Species Act intended to protect fish in the San Joaquin River Delta meant farmers had to pump groundwater even in back-to-back years of plentiful rainfall, the letter stated.

Federico Barajas, executive director of the San Luis & Delta-Mendota Water Authority, agreed.

“This year is a perfect example of the disconnect between available rainfall and snowpack and the ability to operate the Central Valley Project in a way that takes advantage of the water provided by nature in any given year,” said Barajas.

State Water Allocation Still at 40%

Jacobsen said he’s still awaiting an increase from state-controlled water projects. Though largely supplying municipal and industrial sources, the Department of Water Resources supplies some agricultural users as well.

In April, the department increased its allocation from 30% to 40%.

The department reported then that in the spring, endangered fish detected near the State Water Project limited pumping from the Delta into the California Aqueduct. That reduction in pumping limited how much water could go into the San Luis Reservoir.

The department in April said that it expected to increase pumping “significantly this summer.”

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Edward Smith,
Multimedia Journalist
Edward Smith began reporting for GV Wire in May 2023. His reporting career began at Fresno City College, graduating with an associate degree in journalism. After leaving school he spent the next six years with The Business Journal, doing research for the publication as well as covering the restaurant industry. Soon after, he took on real estate and agriculture beats, winning multiple awards at the local, state and national level. You can contact Edward at 559-440-8372 or at Edward.Smith@gvwire.com.

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