Valley water agencies ask for more water now and in the future

Water contractors on the Valley’s east and west sides ask to increase pumping from the Delta and to begin long-term water storage projects to prepare for future droughts

SACRAMENTO – On pace to be the driest January-February on record, signaling a third straight year of drought, local water authorities are begging the state to release more water for farmers this summer or at least begin building capacity to withstand future droughts.

On Feb. 23, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation announced its initial 2022 water supply allocations for Central Valley Project contractors, including the water agencies which operate the Friant-Kern Canal to the east and Delta-Mendota Canal to the west. Allocations are based on an estimate of water available for delivery to CVP water users and reflect current reservoir storages, precipitation and snowpack in the Central Valley and Sierra Nevada. This year’s low allocations are an indicator of the third consecutive dry year California is experiencing and will be updated if conditions warrant.

“We began the 2022 water year with low CVP reservoir storage and some weather whiplash, starting with a record day of Sacramento rainfall in October and snow-packed December storms to a very dry January and February, which are on pace to be the driest on record,” said Regional Director Ernest Conant. 

Currently, CVP reservoir storage is below the historic average for this time of year and runoff forecasts predict that overall storage will be limited if substantial spring precipitation does not materialize. California Department of Water Resources’ forecast update from Feb. 1 to Feb. 15 shows a total decrease in projected annual inflow to Shasta, Oroville, Folsom, and New Melones reservoirs of 1.2 million acre-feet. 

“Losing over a million acre-feet of projected inflow in two weeks’ time is concerning,” said Regional Director Conant. “We’ve got our work cut out for us this year; strengthened collaboration and coordination among agency partners, water and power users, and stakeholders will be instrumental.”

The initial allocation would only provide Friant Division contractors, those who receive surface water from the Friant-Kern Canal, with 15% of its Class 1 allocation, or about 120,000 acre feet of water, and 0% for Class 2 contractors.  

Friant Water Authority, which operates the Friant-Kern Canal, said it understood Bureau of Reclamation’s desire to err on the side of caution but said their contractors should receive a higher allocation based on the current snowpack and reservoir conditions. Even if the rest of the water year, which runs from Oct.1 to Sept. 30 of the following year, is extremely dry, it estimates there is an additional 240,000 acre feet of water frozen in the upper San Joaquin River watershed which fills Millerton Lake behind Friant Dam northeast of Fresno.

“Not allocating water that is clearly available will only exacerbate an unnecessary rush to pump groundwater, causing additional overdraft,” Friant said in a released statement. “We look forward to continuing to work with Reclamation as they further their analysis of the water supply data, and to the allocation increases that are warranted so our farmers and cities can adequately plan for the upcoming water year.”

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 explaining 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 said in a released statement.

Millerton Lake, which releases water to both the Delta-Mendota and Friant-Kern canals, is currently holding about 269,000 acre feet of water, just over half of the reservoir’s capacity, according to the Bureau of Reclamation. That’s about 30% below the historical average for this time of year but about 93% of the 15-year average. 

The situation was more dire for the San Luis & Delta-Mendota Water Authority which operates and maintains the Delta-Mendota Canal, which carries water stored at Friant Dam southeasterly to the Mendota Pool east of Fresno. The water authority’s contractors would receive 0% of its Class 1 water under the Bureau of Reclamation’s initial allocation. In the last decade, the authority says it has received allocations below 20% six times and allocations of 75% and above only twice, reinforcing California’s rainfall and snowpack patterns are changing and that water management strategies need to adapt.

“The challenge before us demands long-term and sustainable solutions – we must invest in the maintenance, improvement and restoration of our critical infrastructure that serves as the backbone of California, we must increase our ability to store water during those flood years for the droughts we know will come, and we must improve the operational flexibility of our system so that we can respond to the challenges each water year presents,” said Federico Barajas, executive director of the San Luis & Delta-Mendota Water Authority.

Barajas said the federal and state governments have significant amounts of money to invest in infrastructure, as evidenced by the Infrastructure Investments and Jobs Act passed by Congress in November and Gov. Newsom’s proposed 2022-23 budget. The $550 billion bill has allocated just under $90 billion for infrastructure projects. About $20 billion of the state’s $43 billion surplus is open for projects statewide. In fact, the state has already collected $12 billion in taxes over the state’s spending limit for the year, which can automatically be used to finance infrastructure projects from the general fund. 

“[These] give us hope that these long-term solutions may be initiated,” Barajas said. “However, the time to invest is now – we cannot allow this moment to pass without meaningful action to build water resilience for the communities and ecosystems served by the Authority’s member agencies.”

As the water year progresses, changes in hydrology and opportunities to deliver additional water will influence future allocations. Reclamation will continue to track hydrology and may adjust basin-specific allocations if conditions warrant an update. Water supply updates are posted on the Bureau of Reclamation’s California-Great Basin Region’s website.

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