The Obama administration plans a historic tightening of the spigot for California farmers in the face of punishing drought.
The Bureau of Reclamation notified senior water contractors on the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers last weekend that they should expect 40 percent of their regular deliveries this year.
Forced by record-low precipitation last year and into 2014, the cutback would be the first to fall short of quantities promised in long-term contracts for water drawn from the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers. Under contracts with the federal government, water suppliers are guaranteed at least 75 percent of their agreed-upon water deliveries.
"We were actually a little surprised that it was as low as 40 percent, to be honest with you," said Thaddeus Bettner, general manager of the Glenn-Colusa Irrigation District, the largest water district in the Sacramento Valley with about 140,000 acres of irrigated farmland. "We're just trying to take it all in right now and figure out how we're going to respond."
Reclamation has cut the district's deliveries four times since its contract began in 1964, Bettner said. "It's either been 75 percent or 100, so with 40 percent it sets a new precedent that we're definitely concerned about. It definitely raises some issues that are not addressed in the contract."
Bettner's district normally receives 825,000 acre-feet of water per year, but this year, starting March 1, it will receive 330,000 acre-feet. An acre-foot is the amount of water needed to flood an acre a foot deep, or 325,850 gallons. Glenn-Colusa is a "senior water rights holder," with rights to Sacramento River water that date back to the 1880s, so it has a higher priority for water supplies above other contractors.
If storage in Lake Shasta falls below 3.2 million acre-feet, the district's deliveries are reduced to 75 percent of normal. The reservoir is currently at 1.7 million acre-feet, 38 percent of its capacity.
This year's drought is eclipsing that of 1977, the state's previous driest year on record. "People remember 1977," Bettner said. "It'll be like, 'Do you remember 2014?' That'll be kind of the precedent we're setting this year."
Water rights holders that are lower in seniority are girding for the worst, expecting a zero percent allocation. Reclamation is expected to announce their initial deliveries from the Central Valley Project on Friday.
"We fully expect any day now when they make their initial allocation decision they will allocate at zero," said Jason Peltier, deputy general manager of the Westlands Water District, which supplies irrigation water to about 600,000 acres of farmland in the San Joaquin Valley. "We're so far in the hole, it's probably looking likely that we will remain at zero for the rest of the year."
Reclamation officials would not comment on the letters to senior rights holders. "I was just told we weren't discussing that letter," spokeswoman Lynette Wirth said.
The Friant Water Authority, which provides irrigation for more than a million acres on the eastern side of the San Joaquin Valley, is preparing for some farmers to fallow their land. It gets its water from Millerton Reservoir, behind Friant Dam. But the senior water users have first dibs on its supplies in a dry year.
"It looks like we're going to not have any water because we don't hardly have any water in Friant, and it looks like it's going to have to be released to meet the exchange contractor requirements," said Friant General Manager Ron Jacobsma. "Whatever they take is not available to us, so instead of starting at zero at Friant, we're starting 330,000 acre-feet in the hole."
More than half of Friant's acreage is planted with permanent crops -- fruit and nut trees that require year-to-year maintenance -- rather than annual crops that can be fallowed with limited economic losses. Farmers are making decisions about whether to sell their water to others who have more-valuable crops.
"If the limited water is used to keep permanent crops alive, the guy growing corn may need to fallow his land and loses that income, and the dairy guy needs corn to feed his cows so he has to turn to other, probably more expensive sources," Jacobsma said. "Who's going to get squeezed?"
Jacobsma is looking at water transfers, water banking and other options to give his customers some wiggle room.
"The obvious problem we have right now is how to get enough water in the system to protect those tens of thousands of acres of permanent plantings," he said. About 200,000 acre-feet would be enough, he said, to "move it to where it needs to go to protect most of those permanent plantings. If we were at zero, it's a dire situation for a big part of our service area, particularly citrus and tree nuts."
Wildlife refuges are also at risk. The refuges depend on irrigation in summer and early winter to maintain wetlands and food for migratory birds.
Glenn-Colusa has three national wildlife refuges totaling 20,000 acres. They are supposed to receive a minimum of 25,000 acre-feet of water per year.
"The birds are pretty much migrating out to the refuges now," Bettner said. "If we don't get any early rain in the fall, in October or November they're going to really be hurting for water to flood some of the refuges."
Steve Chedester, executive director of the San Joaquin River Exchange Contractors, which serves 240,000 acres west of the river, is one of the senior rights holders that received a letter from Reclamation on Saturday. His allocation is being cut from 840,000 acre-feet, in a normal year, to 336,000 acre-feet now.
He said the shortage was being exacerbated by protections for fish in California rivers, including the chinook salmon and the delta smelt, a small fish in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta that is listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. Water managers have to keep enough water moving through the rivers to help them survive massive pumps in the delta and warm water temperatures in the summer.
"Those requirements are holding the system back or have helped deplete the system," Chedester said. "You've got state and federal regulations and ESA issues that have basically taken the flexibility out of the system that was designed for seven years of drought. You get into the third year here and it's bankrupt."
Bills in Congress are attempting to free up more water for farmers in various ways.
A House bill from Rep. David Valadao (R-Calif.) would overturn environmental protections for fish, while the Senate bill by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) would provide emergency funding for farmers while making smaller adjustments to water flows in the delta (E&E Daily, Feb. 12).
"The House bill has some long-term items that would be helpful for this year and later and beyond; the Senate version is more short-term," Chedester said. "What we understand is this legislation is a sausage-making process, and the House and the Senate need to confer and put together a program that has both long-term and short-term remedies and fixes."
He added, "It's not there yet; we realize they'll have to get to a compromise on all sides."