Forecast: 'Zero' water for many Central Valley farms
Sacramento Bee (CA), 2014-02-21
Feb. 21--Federal officials announced Friday that the ongoing drought in California means there likely will be no water available for agricultural water customers in the Central Valley this year, including its customers in the Sacramento Valley.
The water allocation forecast by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation is a routine event in early winter, based on projected snowmelt from the Sierra Nevada. But the projection announced Friday was anything but routine.
The agency said its agricultural water contractors in the Central Valley will get no water this year. There simply isn't enough to go around, Reclamation officials said, and still provide water to its other customers who serve critical health and safety needs in urban areas. Those urban customers, which include many water agencies in the Sacramento region served by Folsom Reservoir, will get only 50 percent of the water allowed under their contracts with Reclamation.
The agency serves dozens of water districts throughout the state from a network of canals and reservoirs, including Folsom Lake near Sacramento and Lake Shasta near Redding. The water content of the state's mountain snowpack, essential to refill such reservoirs, is only 25 percent of average.
"This low allocation is yet another indicator of the impacts the severe drought is having on California communities, agriculture, businesses, power and the environment," Reclamation Commissioner Michael Connor said in a statement.
The news follows a similar announcement Jan. 31 by the State Water Project, which also predicted its customers would receive no water this year. The State Water Project, operated by the California Department of Water Resources, serves both agricultural and urban customers.
Both allocations could improve if storms ease the drought picture before winter ends. A significant storm is expected to soak much of Northern California next week. But the National Weather Service recently reported there is merely a 1-in-1,000 chance at this stage that winter will conclude with even average rainfall.
The zero allocation will mean a reduction in this year's rice crop in the Sacramento Valley, said Jim Morris, spokesman for the California Rice Commission. He could not yet estimate how much that reduction would be, but said it would likely amount to "tens of thousands of acres" taken out of production. The valley normally plants about 550,000 acres in rice during the months of April and May.
"This is something unprecedented at this stage," Morris said. "We haven't seen these kinds of cuts proposed. We are still a little unclear on the impacts."
He said the cuts will likely mean many farmers will rely more heavily on groundwater pumping. Reduced rice planting also means less habitat for migratory birds, and economic impacts for small towns in the valley that rely on rice farming activity.
The zero allocation also affects many farms in the San Joaquin Valley.
"The impact of this drought is far-reaching, impacting more than 80 percent of California communities, and threatening the viability of California's agricultural production," said Tom Birmingham, general manager of Westlands Water District in the San Joaquin Valley, which also faces a zero allocation.
The 50 percent allocation for Reclamation's urban contractors was not unexpected. Many of them, especially those in the Sacramento region served by Folsom Reservoir, have already asked customers to reduce their water use by 20 or more.
John Woodling, executive director of the Sacramento Regional Water Authority, said stricter conservation measure are likely in the wake of Friday's news.
"How far that goes is hard to tell right now," Woodling said. "It's going to be challenging. But if that level of delivery can be maintained, hopefully it's not catastrophic."
A separate category of Reclamation farm water contractors, known as "settlement" contractors because they hold some of their own water rights, will be hit less severely. These exchange contractors in both the Sacramento and San Joaquin valleys were told to expect 40 percent of their normal deliveries.
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