Westside Merced County farmers are happy that, for the first time since 2006, they’ll receive their full water allocation from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.
But some feel the news came too late.
The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation announced Tuesday it is boosting the water allocation for farmers south of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta to 100 percent.
The notice came weeks after the bureau told disappointed growers they would receive 65 percent of the contract supply from the Central Valley Project.
“While the water is welcome, it’s very hard to plan when you don’t know what you’re getting,” said Breanne Ramos, executive director of the Merced County Farm Bureau. “And then, all of a sudden, you’re getting this opportunity.”
Some Merced County farmers whose water allocation is governed by the Bureau of Reclamation have already put seeds in the ground anticipating a lower allocation.
“We wish it would have been announced earlier in the season so growers affected by this could make those decisions,” Ramos said.
What changed the bureau’s mind? The snowpack results.
On March 30, the state Department of Water Resources reported the average statewide snow-water equivalent in the Sierra Nevada was nearly 46 inches, or 164 percent of the historical average for March.
“Following the California Department of Water Resources exceptional March 30 snow survey results, Reclamation is pleased to announce this increase to a 100 percent allocation for our South-of-Delta water contractors,” acting regional director Pablo Arroyave said in a news release.
“However, as Gov. Brown reminded us last week when lifting California’s drought state of emergency, the next drought could be around the corner. It is crucial that we remain vigilant in conserving our precious water resources.”
Cannon Michael, a Los Banos area farmer who was recently elected as chair of the San Luis & Delta-Mendota Water Authority, said increasing the allocation from 65 percent to 100 percent isn’t going to change farmers’ plans much.
“You don’t want to sound ungrateful and unhappy,” Michael said, noting that the full allocation was a good sign. “But as much water as there was in the system, and snow, there seems like there could have been a way to tell earlier.”
Tomato farmers especially have it rough, Michael said, noting that the time for planting has already passed.
However, Michael said the allocation may mean farmers don’t have to pump as much groundwater for their crops, depending on the costs.
Local farmer and developer Greg Hostetler said the allocation helped his almond, pistachio and grape ranches.
“It gets us some breathing room,” Hostetler said, noting that he hopes the state continues conservation efforts and does more for water storage.
The farm bureau and Westlands Water District, one of the districts harder hit by the low allocation last year, welcomed the water boost news. But officials say Tuesday’s announcement underscores a bigger problem – a broken water delivery system.
The Central Valley Project was designed to deliver full supplies in all types of water years with allocations to be made in mid-February so farmers can make planting decisions, Westlands said. Since 2006, the district has experienced allocations ranging from zero to 80 percent. From 2014 to 2015 the allocation was zero. In 2016, farmers got 5 percent but were told it could not be used during the irrigation season, the water district said.
“For farmers who had to make planting decisions several months ago, (Tuesday’s) announcement of an increase in supply comes too late in the season to aid their operations,” Westlands said in a news release.
But on a positive note, “the water unused from this year’s allocation will remain in storage for next year. We look forward to a timely, adequate allocation for the next growing season.”
A pair of Valley congressional leaders applauded the full water allocation but also recognized the need to improve the water system.
Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno, said in a statement that Tuesday’s announcement was long overdue for the Valley’s agricultural community.
“While I applaud today’s announcement, there is no denying that California’s water system is broken, and further action must be taken to move California’s water system into the 21st century,” Costa said. “Investments need to be made to build water storage and fix broken water infrastructure, so that more water can be captured during years with above-average rain and snowfall.”
Rep. David Valadao, R-Hanford, said he was encouraged by the allocation and what it means for the future.
“Access to a clean, reliable water supply is the lifeblood of the Central Valley’s booming agricultural economy, and is imperative to the everyday lives of all Valley families,” Valadao said in a statement.
BoNhia Lee of The Fresno Bee contributed to this report.
Vikaas Shanker: 209-826-3831, ext. 6562