Imperial Valley Press
Farmers expected to get increased water allocations
Winter storms that bolstered the Sierra Nevada snowpack and added to California reservoirs prompted federal and state water managers to announce increases in anticipated water allocations for the 2023 growing season.
The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation last week announced an initial allocation of 35% of contracted water supplies for agricultural customers south of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.
The announcement brought a measure of certainty for farmers, ranchers and agricultural water contractors, after officials provided zero water allocations for agriculture from the federal Central Valley Project in 2021 and 2022.
Ernest Conant, director of the California Great Basin region of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which manages the CVP, said the project began the 2023 water year with 3.6 million acre-feet of storage in its six key reservoirs. That was just 29% of capacity after three years of drought.
But storm events in December and January changed the water picture. The precipitation added another 3 million acre-feet to the state’s upstream reservoirs and built average snowpack levels to 205% of average on Feb. 1.
The improved forecast for federal water allocations was welcomed by Fresno County farmer Jeff Fortune, board president of Westlands Water District, a CVP water contractor.
“We’d been anticipating a much lower release initially, but we stressed to the Bureau that the farmers need a higher initial allocation so they know what they can do in the spring at planting time,” said Fortune, who farms tomatoes, almonds and pistachios in Cantu Creek just west of Five Points.
Now some fellow farmers are planning increased plantings.
“One of my neighbors, as soon as the initial allocation came out, he called his seed vendor and ordered 600 acres of feed corn that he was going to have to idle,” Fortune said. “This will be a salvation for this year, and we’re hopeful that future hydrology will allow this initial allocation to increase.”
Westlands Water District officials reported that the past two years of no water led to fallowing of more than 223,000 acres, or 36% of the district’s farmland.
For the 2023 water year, Fortune said, he was ready to make tough decisions about removing trees and row crops based on the forecasted allocation amount.
“If we had a zero allocation this year, we were going to have to fallow all of our row crops and pull out 600 acres of permanent plantings. We needed at least 25% this year to farm everything,” he said. “We thought we may have to lay off a third of our employees, and now we don’t have to lay anybody off.”
Due to gains in the Sierra Nevada snowpack, the California Department of Water Resources also increased its forecasted allocation last week from the State Water Project to 35% of requested water supplies, up from 30% forecast in January.
In addition, Gov. Gavin Newsom’s Feb. 13 executive order gave state water agencies the guidance and flexibility to move and store water.
That order allows the State Water Resources Control Board to reevaluate requirements for reservoir releases and diversion limitations to maximize water supplies north and south of the delta.
Senior water rights holders, including the Sacramento and San Joaquin River Settlement Contractors, are now due to receive 100% of their historical allocation. However, the federal allocation may be reduced, Conant said, based on inflows into Lake Shasta, the CVP’s largest reservoir.