Feds reduce water forecast for farmers
by Jonathan Partridge / For the Tracy Press
Feb 28, 2013 | 1574 views | 0 0 comments | 6 6 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Local irrigation districts are gearing up for a relatively dry season after federal officials announced Monday, Feb. 25, that irrigation districts that pull water out of the Delta-Mendota Canal might only receive a quarter of their contracted water allocations this year.

The announcement comes after a January and February that saw little rainfall — according to a report from the California Department of Water Resources, it was the driest January-February in the northern Sierras since records were kept

beginning in 1921.

Also influencing the decision was a call from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service called to reduce the amount of water pumped from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta because more than 200 endangered Delta smelt have been killed by a federal pumping facility near Tracy.

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 Del Puerto Water District — which supplies farmers on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley from Vernalis south toward Santa Nella — said growers in the district’s 45,000 acres 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.

Multiple pressures

Local irrigation district officials, including Harrison, 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.

David Murillo, director of the Bureau of Reclamation’s Mid-Pacific Regio, said despite hopes for a rainy March and April, officials hoped to find a 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.

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.

However, some scientists and Delta-area farmers worry that shipping fresh Sacramento River water through the tunnels will increase the salinity of the lower reaches of the Delta.

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 jonathan@pattersonirrigator.com.
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