East Valley farmers and cities may get more surface water this summer

Friant Water Authority, which operates the Friant-Kern Canal, expects to see a water supply increase from 15% to 20% as early as this month

TULARE COUNTY – Farmers and cities on the east side of the Valley may get more water than they originally thought. 

Friant Water Authority, which operates the Friant-Kern Canal, said in a recent memo on its website it is confident its contractors will not only get the 15% allocation of surface water deliveries announced in February but that the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation will likely increase the amount to 20%, possibly as early as this week. The Bureau of Reclamation is the federal agency which oversees the Central Valley Project, a network of dams, reservoirs, canals, hydroelectric power plants and other facilities which supply water to the San Joaquin Valley, Sacramento Valley and parts of the Bay Area.

Better snow and rainfall in the Sacramento area late in the spring has allowed the Bureau of Reclamation to budget more water to be delivered to the San Joaquin Exchange Contractors through the Jones Pumping Plant moving it south of the Delta – relieving Friant of that obligation and allowing that much more water to be delivered to its members along the 150-mile Friant-Kern Canal.

“The 15% Class 1 allocation currently remains unchanged, but Reclamation informed the FWA Board of Directors at their regular Board meeting on June 23rd that any increase above 15% Class 1 allocation would likely occur in increments of perhaps 5%-10%,” Friant Water Authority (FWA) said in a June 29 post. “More recent communications with Reclamation suggest that an increase to 20% Class 1 could occur as early as next week.”

That would put an extra 40,000 acre feet into farm canals from Madera down to Bakersfield at a time of extreme drought in the hottest part of the summer. That water would also be in addition to 120,000 acre feet included in the initial 15% allocation. In a wet year, like 2019, FWA contractors get a full allocation of Class 1 water, or 800,000 acre feet. Class 1 contractors are those who receive water before anyone else while Class 2 contractors only receive water when there is more than enough to supply Class 2. FWA’s Class 2 contractors did not receive any allocation, meaning the 2022 water year is projected to be very dry. Water years run from Oct. 1 to Sept. 30 of the following year.

Despite the welcome increase to 20% of their allocation, FWA staff have estimated there is more water stored in the upper San Joaquin River, watershed which fills Millerton Lake behind Friant Dam northeast of Fresno, that could be put to use. In February, FWA said it estimated there was about 240,000 acre feet of water supply in the upper San Joaquin watershed in addition to the 254,000 acre feet already allocated to restore salmon runs as part of the San Joaquin River Restoration Program. 

“Not allocating water that is clearly available will only exacerbate an unnecessary rush to pump groundwater, causing additional overdraft,” the water agency posted in February.

In February, FWA asked state and federal water regulators to increase pumping from the Sacramento Delta to avoid excessive groundwater pumping as the state is enthralled in its third year of drought. 

Water from the Delta, the confluence of the San Joaquin and Sacramento Rivers near Sacramento, provides about two-thirds of the state’s population with drinking water. Water from the Delta is pumped into the State Water Project and Central Valley Project’s network of canals to deliver water to 4 million acres of farmland in the Central Valley and more than 25 million people in Central and Southern California and parts of the Bay Area.

Water is no longer consistently pumped out of the Delta because of court-ordered restrictions to minimize effects on Delta smelt, an endangered fish which is only found in the Delta, and other species. Water Education Foundation, a nonprofit created to explain water resources in California, states the natural ecosystem of the coastal estuary has put many native fish species at risk of extinction, and allowed non-native species to thrive.

“Friant Water implores State and Federal agencies to allow maximum pumping operations in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta whenever possible this year to help relieve the significant pressure on groundwater supplies, even on top of the significant amounts of water conservation and land fallowing farmers have already implemented to manage through the drought,” Friant Water stated in February.

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