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.
Fritz Durst, a Sacramento River settlement contractor who farms rice alfalfa, sunflowers, tomatoes and cereal crops near Knights Landing, said he is hopeful but still has serious concerns about this water year.
“Unfortunately, this year we haven’t seen nearly the rain on the coast range to the west or to the north in the Shasta area,” he said. “While many parts of California suffered from floods, we are way under in terms of what we would normally get, so it’s going to be tough.”
Sacramento River Settlement Contractors received an 18% water allocation last year, but Durst said it was not known whether farmers would be able to access the river. As a result, he said, “people didn’t even plant their 18% because they didn’t know if they would have a dry period for two to three weeks in the middle of summer where they couldn’t get any water. You couldn’t take that risk.”
For this year, Durst said, “Right now, I’d say it is pretty much a 95% chance we’re going to get 50% of our water.”
Durst is a trustee for Reclamation District No. 108, which delivers water to nearly 48,000 acres of farmland in Colusa and Yolo counties. He said farmers need a more solid water allocation amount in the next six weeks to move forward with plans to plant rice.
Affected by reduced water supplies last year, rice farmers across the Sacramento Valley fallowed about 250,000 acres of rice ground, or half of the state’s rice crop.
“With the requirements of Shasta Reservoir, it’s not just about how much water comes out of the reservoir for the fish, but it’s also about the temperature of that water,” said Durst.
He noted that fisheries agencies do not yet have a temperature management plan. “If it doesn’t rain much more, it is possible that they could back off from that 100%,” Durst said. “So we really don’t know.”
After receiving no contracted water last year, Reclamation officials announced that north-of-delta irrigation water-service and repayment contractors will receive 35% of their contract total. Municipal and industrial contractors along the Sacramento and American Rivers, and municipalities in the delta and south of the delta, are allocated 75% of historical requests.
Friant Division, Class 1 contractors are allocated the first 800,000 acre-feet of supply, and Class 2 contractors may receive the next amount, up to 1.4 million acre-feet.
Looking ahead, Conant said, “While we are cautiously optimistic, we are also cognizant of the uncertainties that exist and the fluctuating nature of California’s climate with the possibility that dry conditions will return.”
The Central Valley Project provides an annual average 5 million acre-feet of water for farms, 600,000 acre-feet of water for municipal and industrial uses, and water for wildlife refuges and maintaining water quality in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. Allocations may be adjusted as the water year progresses.
(Christine Souza is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at [email protected].)