Farmers' federal water supply cut by 75 percent
by Jonathan Partridge | Patterson Irrigator
Feb 26, 2013 | 2721 views | 1 1 comments | 6 6 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Local irrigation districts are gearing up for challenges after federal officials announced Monday, Feb. 25, that irrigation districts that pull water out of the Delta-Mendota Canal may only receive a quarter of their full water allocations this year.

The announcement comes after a dry January and February and after the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service called for reduced pumping at a federal facility north of Tracy because more than 200 endangered Delta smelt had gotten killed in the pumps.

The allocations are the lowest that farmers south of the Delta have had since 2009, when south-of-the-Delta farmers who draw water from the federal Central Valley Project conveyance system only received 15 percent allocations.

“I think we’re going to see some very serious fallowing of row crop land,” said Bill Harrison, general manager of the Patterson-based Del Puerto Water District, which serves about 45,000 acres of farmland between Santa Nella and Vernalis.

It’s not uncommon for those who draw water from the federal Central Valley Project water delivery system to receive far less than 100 percent of their contracted water supply, even in a relatively wet year.

But this year’s federal allocations are their lowest level since 2009, when south-of-the-Delta farmers received only 15 percent.

Bill Harrison, general manager of the Patterson-based Del Puerto Water District, said growers in the 45,000-acre swath between Vernalis and Santa Nella will have to make hard decisions when it comes to planting.

“I think we’re going to see some very serious fallowing of row crop land,” he said.

Del Puerto Water District board member Earl Perez, whose family grows tomatoes, beans, alfalfa, melons, walnuts and almonds in Crows Landing and Westley, confirmed his family’s plans will have to change.

“This is going to change our plans considerably,” he said. “We’re probably going to have to leave some land idle because of these allocations.

While the 25 percent allocation is a conservative figure based on expectations of continued dry weather during the next two months, U.S. Bureau of Reclamation spokesman Pete Lucero said it would take a “miracle March” or April with lots of precipitation to get beyond 35 percent allocations.

Multiple pressures

Local irrigation district officials estimate they lost 15 percent of their annual supply because of restrictions to water pumping from the Delta.

A total of 230 adult smelt have been killed at the Tracy pumps since late last year, according to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials.

Many of those deaths resulted when smelt migrated southward toward the pumps, following murky water created by a series of December storms

Operators at the plant turned off four of five pumps Feb. 8 to comply with a recommendation from federal and state biologists, an opinion that have since been eased. On Monday, Feb. 25, four of five pumps were operating, Lucero said.

Meanwhile, U.S. Fish and Wildlife officials announced last week that 362 smelt can be legally killed by the pumps this year, instead of the previous estimate of 305.

Despite the increased leeway, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service spokesman Steven Martarano said the aim is still to preserve as many of the endangered finger-sized fish as possible.

Scientists say the Delta smelt is an “indicator species” — if it is in trouble, the health of the entire Delta is in trouble.

Planning for the future

Officials from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which oversees the Central Valley Project, are working with other agencies to help ensure that farmers, cities and wildlife have an adequate water supply in future years.

“While we continue to hope for additional precipitation during the remainder of the rainy season, we are also continuing to work with our federal, state and local partners to improve this year’s supply and to find a comprehensive, long-term solution that will achieve the dual goals of a reliable water supply for California and a healthy (San Francisco) Bay-Delta ecosystem that supports the state’s economy,” said David Murillo, director of the Bureau of Reclamation’s Mid-Pacific Region.

One controversial proposal touted by the state Department of Water Resources is the construction of twin tunnels that would take water out of the Sacramento River and send it directly to the pumping plants, instead of allowing it to flow through the Delta.

Gov. Jerry Brown’s office estimates that project will cost $14 billion.

In the meantime, irrigation district managers and farmers say it will be challenging to meet local growers’ needs this year.

Harrison said the low allocations aren’t sustainable for those on the West Side.

“This doesn’t work for us, and it certainly doesn’t work for us on a long-term basis,” Harrison said.

• Contact Jonathan Partridge at 892-6187, ext. 26, or

Comments-icon Post a Comment
February 28, 2013
This reporter does a good job in explaining the causes for the low allocation number for CVP water users. We've had dry years before that have resulted in low allocations but the loss of nearly 800,000 acre-feet of water because of dubious efforts to protect fish is unbelievable.

Water stored in federal reservoirs (Trinity, Shasta, Folsom and San Luis) totaled 7.3 million acre-feet on Feb. 26, 2013. In 1977, the driest year on record, that total was only 3.3 maf. The initial water allocation in 1977 was 25%, the same as this year; yet the amount of water in storage this year is more than double the 1977 number.

Federal regulations that have taken nearly 800,000 acre-feet of water away from farms, families and businesses need to be changed if California is to avoid a disaster in future years.

Mike Wade

California Farm Water Coalition

We encourage your online comments in this public forum, but please keep them respectful and constructive. This is not a forum for personal attacks, libelous statements, profanity or racist slurs. Readers may report such inappropriate comments by e-mailing the editor at