Surplus of snow, water leads federal Bureau of Reclamation to fill up the water allocations for the Central Valley Project
TULARE COUNTY – Record rain and snowfall from winter storms have left Central Valley Project contractors with their glasses half full this year – and on the Friant Water Authority’s count, graciously so.
Just over a month after some conservative water allotments were announced for Central Valley Project (CVP) contractors, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation (USBR) reported an increase in water allocations on March 28. Johnny Amaral, chief operating officer and head of external affairs for Friant Water Authority, said this year is shaping up to be historic in terms of rainfall and snowpack.
“This is one of those years where the biggest problem to deal with is what to do with all the water,” Amaral said. “It’s just one of those things; we’d much rather have to deal with this type of situation than the alternative, which is drought.”
As the snowpack begins to melt and run off into the water reservoirs with the warming season, Amaral said water contractors like the Friant Division are making sure to move every drop of water they can from Millerton Lake through the Friant-Kern Canal and the Madera Canal. Right now, he confirmed that USBR, which owns and operates the Friant Dam, is releasing about 9,000 cubic feet per second (CFS) – which accounts for the water’s volume and speed – down the San Joaquin River.
Although that water is lost to the eastern Valley once it’s released, Amaral also confirmed that this loss is necessary, because the watermasters at the dam are accounting for 15,000 CFS of inflow pouring into the reservoir due to runoff from snow melt.
“So, you can see, there’s twice as much water coming into the reservoir as they’re capable of releasing from the reservoir,” Amaral said.
According to USBR, since initial water allocations were made in February, additional atmospheric river systems – sometimes referred to as rivers in the sky – have boosted the state’s water conditions and storage volumes, allowing for a more robust water supply allocation this year. With that boost, water contractors north and south of the delta as well as the Friant Division had their metaphorical glasses filled to the brim.
With the increased allocations, Amaral said this raise in allotments will help fuel the economic engine of the eastern Valley for another year and, hopefully, beyond it.
“The communities that are intertwined within the Friant Division on the east side of the Valley, especially those that depend on groundwater for their drinking water needs, will have the support they need,” Amaral said.
The increased water allocations for Friant Division contractors will help raise groundwater levels as well as improve groundwater quality, according to Amaral. It will also help in keeping farmland in production, because as he described it, agriculture and ag production are the backbone of the economy on the east side of the Valley because of the water supply coming in from the Friant dam and canal as well as the Madera canal.
“It also gives us a chance to recharge aquifers and do all of the things that need to be done, because we’re all in this together,” Amaral said.
For Friant Division contractors, the division’s water supply is delivered from Millerton Reservoir on the upper San Joaquin River through the Madera and Friant-Kern canals and is separated into class one and class two. The first 800,000 acre-feet of available water supply is considered class one; class two is considered the next amount of available water supply up to 1.4 million acre-feet. Class one remained at 100% despite the boost, but class two swelled from 20% to 70% as of March 7.
For North-of-Delta and South-of-Delta CVP contractors, irrigation water service and repayment contractors jumped to 80% from 35% or their contracted total. Their municipal and industrial water service and repayment contractors, which also delivers supply to water users or retailers serving residential and non-agricultural commercial areas, increased to 100% from 75% of historical use.
Even at the state level, the California Department of Water Resources had already delivered 75% of requested water supplies on March 24, a significant jump from the 35% that was reported in February. However, despite the record amount of water that has come in recently and increased allocations, Amaral noted that California could easily experience a water shortage once more if it faces another dry year.
“Yes, mother nature did her job,” Amaral said. “But if next year is a dry year, we’re right back into the cycle of drought.”
According to Amaral, the drought experienced by California has been referenced as a “regulatory” or a “man made” drought because of state regulation. When the federal CVP was initially designed about 100 years ago, he noted that it was made to withstand five consecutive years of drought. However, with all of the regulations, litigation and decisions made since then, especially within the last 30 years, he said the state can’t even make it through a full year of drought.
“We can’t have this feast or famine type situation in California and expect to be able to plan for the future,” Amaral said. “That has to be fixed to where we can comfortably rely on a certain allocation, regardless of hydrology.”
Amaral said if priority was put on allowing water projects, like CVP, to function as they were designed to function, then it would be easier to rely on water supply. However, he stated that the great thing about the nation’s government is that, even though it sometimes takes a while, it usually gets it right; and hopefully will in terms of water management.
Although he agrees there are years of true drought that cannot be fully addressed, Amaral said years with an abundant water supply are compounded and worsened when not managed well.
“That’s what we’ve got to do, we’ve got to work our way through that,” Amaral said.
According to the Bureau of Reclamation, as the water year progresses, future allocations will be influenced based on changes in hydrology, actions that impact operations and opportunities to deliver additional water. Additionally, the Bureau of Reclamation will continue to monitor hydrology and could adjust basin-specific allocations if those conditions warrant an update.