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Feds: Less water for California agriculture this year

February 20, 2009 |  2:04 pm

Federal officials announced today that they may not be able to provide the agricultural water supply to more than 200 water districts in the Central Valley for the upcoming growing season "unless things begin to improve."

It marks the first time in 17 years that the Federal Bureau of Reclamation has announced that it does not have enough water to fulfill its agricultural contracts to parts of the Central Valley, including about 3 million acres of farmland typically irrigated by the agency. In addition to 1992, the agency also announced a zero-percent supply for agriculture in 1977. In both 1992 and 1977, the water supply eventually increased to 25% of the contracts, agency spokesperson Lynnette Wirth said.

"This year is on the heels of two previous critically dry years, and this is the third year in a row," Wirth said, adding that the zero-percent projection affects only the agency's agricultural service contractors. Today's announcement was the agency's initial water allocation projection for 2009, and Wirth said officials were hopeful the allocations could be increased if there is more precipitation.

According to a dry forecast projection released by the agency, agriculture contracts north and south of the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta would receive zero percent allocation while municipal and industrial groups would receive 50% of their contracts in the same area. Refuges and people under "water rights" contracts are projected to receive 75% of their contracts, Wirth said.

Tom Birmingham, general manager of the Westlands Water District, which has the largest contract with about 1.2 million acre-feet of water delivered by the federal agency, issued a statement in response to the projection, describing a water crisis already underway.

"Farmers in the Westlands Water District have already begun destroying thousands of acres of almond orchards and plan on fallowing over 300,000 acres of land. Wherever possible, almond production will be stunted in hopes of keeping the trees alive through this desperate time. But there is no question that many years worth of investments will be lost," he said in the statement.

"In Westlands, the crisis is well underway," he continued. "Cropping decisions have already been made. Fields are being abandoned. The unemployment rate in the community of Mendota alone has soared to 40%."

The state Department of Water Resources announced today that it would be able to allocate only 15% supply to each of its contractors.

"Reduced deliveries will require contractors to rely on dry water year contingency plans to meet their needs. If precipitation were to increase and hydrologic and reservoir conditions improve, it is possible the allocation could rise in coming months," water resources officials said in a statement.

Laura King Moon, assistant general manager of State Water Contractors, a nonprofit association of 27 public agencies across California that buys water from the state, said "the drought has simply drawn the regulatory noose a little tighter."

The SWC delivers water to more than 750,000 acres of farmland and to more than 25 million California residents.

"Water agencies up and down the state will be forced to adopt increasingly restrictive water management approaches, including mandatory conservation, rationing and rate hikes," Moon said in statement. "We need to move forward as quickly as possible with a proactive, comprehensive approach to protect fish as well as the water supply people depend on.”

-- Ari B. Bloomekatz