Friant Water Authority not concerned with low water levels

The Central Valley Project begins the water year with only 3.6 million acre feet of water storage, but is without water debt

CENTRAL VALLEY – While the water year began with one of the lowest storage amounts ever, the Friant Water Authority believes low water allocations will leave them largely unaffected. 

The Friant Water Authority contended with several factors when it came to water allocation last year. Chief among them was “water debt” owed to the State Water Project. This year, despite a deepening drought, the authority will no longer have that burden. 

“[Last water year] we were not building the Central Valley Project supply until the beginning of January. We had a big debt [of water] that we were paying back from last year…compared to this time, we have no debt, [so] we’re actually in a positive position,” water resources manager for Friant Water Authority Ian Buck-Macleod, said. “So every drop of water that’s developing now, moving into the next calendar year is all going towards next year’s supply.”

After the one month mark of the 2023 water year, numbers are where they are expected to be, as far as October is concerned according to Buck-Macleod. As the forecast predicts rain in the upcoming weeks for the majority of the state, he said this is a positive look for the waterways. Locally for instance, the Friant Kern Canal is fed from multiple water sources and therefore needs rain from multiple areas throughout the state.

“[Water comes] from the Delta and north of Delta,” Buck-Macleod said. “That’s why for the Friant [Kern Canal], we’re concerned about it not just raining on the upper San Joaquin, we need it to basically rain throughout California, in order to make sure that the exchange contract supply is met.”

The Friant Kern Canal has several exchange contracts that need to be met. Each contract has an allocation percentage that is updated each month based on how much water is available. Usually those who have a contract are those who do not have access or have limited access to ground water according to Buck-Macleod.

In years where other water supplies are low on water, the Friant Water Authority may be “called on” to allocate some of their water to those who have senior water rights. This happened last year, allowing for yet another reason for a lack of water in the Friant Kern Canal. However, Buck-Macleod said this year there is a smaller chance, about 10-20% chance, of the Friant Kern Canal being called on. In order for the Friant Kern Canal to build their own water storage, they need to have an above normal water year, otherwise future years will continue to struggle.

The U.S. Bureau of Reclamations is calculating water allocations for the water year–which began on Oct. 1–following the winter months between 2022 and 2023. According to a bureau of reclamations press release they are taking a “fresh look” at the CVP.

“In order to navigate through this record-breaking drought, we had to modify operations outside of those considered in previous droughts and take a fresh look at every component of the CVP including facilities, contractors and environmental requirements.” Ernest Conant, regional director of the California-Great Basin region, said. 

While 3.6 million acre feet of water is among the lowest in water storage for the water year, the 2021-2022 water year began with less. In addition the CVP needed to pay off their water debt that they do not have this year, but that does not mean there is nothing to worry about.

According to the bureau, with little water coming into the surrounding lakes and in anticipation of continued drought in 2023, the Bureau of Reclamation will pursue a water management strategy. That strategy will emphasize providing supplies for health and safety needs; maintaining suitable water quality in the Delta, which is the source of municipal drinking water for many communities; protecting species by meeting environmental requirements; conserving storage to meet future critical needs; and urban and agricultural water supplies.

Last year, the bureau of reclamation responded with a 0% allocation to CVP agricultural contractors. With a 0% allocation, that does not entirely mean no contracts will receive water. Buck-Mecloed said the CVP has to deliver water to those with exchange contracts as well as those with municipal and industrial (MI) health and safety contracts. Those with MI health and safety contracts have priority and will receive allocations even if there is a 0% allocation in place. 

“The city of Fresno, the city Lindsay, Orange Cove, there’s some of those, I think even Shafter, that basically if there’s no supply…there’s still some supply for health and safety, to make sure that they have enough [water] to get by,” Buck-Macleod said. 

The CVP is the largest single source of irrigation water in California, typically supplying water to about 3 million acres of agricultural land in the San Joaquin and Sacramento valleys. The CVP also provides urban water for millions of people and industrial water, including that essential to the San Francisco Bay Area’s economy. Water from the CVP is also vital for the environment, wildlife and fishery restoration, including providing water to 19 refuges in the Central Valley and hydroelectric power production.

The 2022 water year was wetter than 2020 and 2021 in some areas of the state, but it was still well below average and came on such a large water supply deficit that it earned the title as the worst three-year drought on record with some of the driest winter months on record,” Conant said.

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