South Valley farmers only get 15% of water supply

U.S. Bureau of Reclamation says Friant water users in eastern Fresno, Tulare and Kern counties will only receive 7%

By Reggie Ellis


TULARE COUNTY – Tulare County farmers and cities who rely on surface water will only get 7% of the possible water they could receive this year.

The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation (USBR) announced last week the initial 2020 water supply allocation for contractors who receive water from the Central Valley Project (CVP), a network of dams, reservoirs, canals, hydroelectric powerplants extending 400 miles through Central California. Among those is Friant Dam at Millerton Lake near Fresno, which provides surface water to 17,000 eastside farmers through the Friant-Kern Canal.

California benefited from wet weather and significant snowpack in late 2019, but precipitation and snowpack have been below average so far in 2020. The California Department of Water Resources reports that as of Feb. 24, statewide average snow water content in the Sierras was just 41% of the April 1 average. Current Northern Sierra precipitation is about 51% of the seasonal average.

“After a promising start to our precipitation season, January and February turned much drier than average,” said Reclamation’s California-Great Basin Regional Director Ernest Conant. “Fortunately, our project reservoirs are still hovering above average thanks to the wet winter last year, but with little precipitation in the forecasts, we must remain cautious with supplies and allocations this early in the year.”

The USBR announced Friant Division contractors will likely only receive 120,000 of a possible supply of 2.2 million acre-feet of water per year. It also said nearly 71,000 acre-feet of water will be used to restore a salmon run as part of the San Joaquin River Restoration Project. All agricultural water contractors south of the Sacramento Delta were collectively allocated 15% of their contract supply.

The cities of Fresno and Lindsay and the communities of Strathmore and Orange Cove are also Friant Division contractors, but will receive 65% of their historic use for “public health and safety needs.”

In addition to the 2020 initial CVP water allocation, several South-of-Delta and Friant Division contractors are rescheduling (carrying over) unused water from 2019 supplies into 2020. That water is being stored in San Luis Reservoir and Millerton Lake. The option to “carry over” water in San Luis Reservoir and Millerton Lake from one contract year to the next has been available to the water service contractors since the early 1990s after a series of dry years to encourage conservation and best water management practices.

Friant Water Authority (FWA), which maintains and operates the Friant-Kern Canal, said the news was “disappointing” but also understandable after one of the driest Februarys on record in the Central Valley.

“We have no doubt that given this year’s hydrology, without the operational flexibility provided in the new Biological Opinions, Reclamation would not have been able to provide contractors an allocation at all this early in the year,” FWA said in a released statement.

The biological opinions were part of the Record of Decision signed by USBR on Feb. 19. The nearly 900-page document called for modernizing Central Valley Project operations based on the latest science to provide greater water reliability for California farms, families and communities while improving protections for endangered species and their habitats.

The ROD is based on robust modern science and rigorous scientific input and review. The resulting actions identified in the ROD will bring added operational flexibility, which will enhance water reliability throughout the system. For example, by incorporating real-time monitoring into the CVP, the ROD enables better decision making and flexibilities to quickly respond to agricultural, environmental and endangered species conditions.

Mike Wade, executive director of the California Farm Water Coalition, said the current conditions are similar to what the state experienced in 2009 when farmers were told for several months that they would receive 0% allocations of water. In April of that year, well past the time to make effective planting decisions, the allocation was set at 10 percent.

“We’re obviously hopeful that allocations will rise, but we’re pleased to be off to a better start than we were under the old operating rules,” Wade said. “That kind of operational flexibility is essential for California to remain the nation’s leading farm state and to continue to produce more than half of the fruits, nuts, and vegetables grown in the U.S. as well as vast amounts of dairy, beef and nursery products.”

These and other actions will significantly contribute to improving conditions for endangered species while ensuring optimal delivery of water for farmers and communities. In addition to operational changes, the ROD broadens the suite of tools to address species’ needs beyond flows alone and includes habitat restoration, facility improvements, hatchery actions, monitoring and science commitments estimated at approximately $1.5 billion in Federal and state funding for the needs of threatened and endangered species over the next 10 years.

Rep. TJ Cox (CA-21) said he would always like to see a higher allocation but given this year’s dry start, he was hopeful that the updated biological opinions would benefit both water supply and salmon in future years.

“Tuesday’s allocations announcement shows the need for increased investment in water storage and the supporting conveyance infrastructure to better manage extreme weather swings between heavy precipitation and extreme drought,” Cox said. “The allocations further demonstrate that our best chance to reach long-term solutions for California’s water challenges is for the state and the federal government to come to the table and reach a coordinated path forward.”

The ROD is based on Reclamation’s December 2019 Final Environmental Impact Statement and biological opinions completed in October 2019 from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and NOAA Fisheries to meet our obligations under the Endangered Species Act.

“Thus, we are extremely appreciative of the current Biological Opinions, as its clear they are already achieving some of their anticipated positive impacts on Central Valley Project operations and water supply reliability for Reclamation’s customers,” FWA stated. “We’re also hopeful that if the hydrology and snowpack improves, so will the allocation.”

FWA said the low, initial allocation will force valley farmers to rely on groundwater supplies, causing further subsidence that has already caused a 60% loss of capacity in water deliveries to eastside farmers in southern Tulare and northern Kern counties.

“This makes our efforts to repair the facility even more urgent and underscores the need for resolving the valley’s long-term water imbalance,” FWA concluded. “Pray for rain and snow.”

As the water year progresses, changes in hydrology and opportunities to deliver additional water will influence future allocations. Water supply updates will be made as appropriate and posted at

“While we’re constrained by the water nature provides, our new CVP operations plan will improve operations to maximize water supplies,” Conant said. “We recognize the importance of providing meaningful allocations early in the year, especially for our agricultural contractors’ planning needs.”

The Bureau of Reclamation is a federal agency under the U.S. Department of the Interior and is the nation’s largest wholesale water supplier and second largest producer of hydroelectric power. Its facilities also provide substantial flood control, recreation opportunities, and environmental benefits. Visit us at and follow us on Twitter @USBR and @ReclamationCVP.

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