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Promise of more water all wet

by Rand Green | March 02, 2010
With above normal precipitation in California this winter after three years of drought, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation made an announcement Feb. 26 that on its surface seemed to say that farmers on the West Side of California's San Joaquin Valley, who had their federal water deliveries slashed to almost nothing last year, could expect as much as 30-40 percent of their normal water this year.

That announcement led to news headlines across the country proclaiming that relief was on its way for West Side farmers, who were forced to fallow hundreds of thousands of acres last year due to water cuts.

On the strength of that announcement, Sen. Diane Feinstein (D-CA) put "on hold" a legislative amendment she had proposed seeking a temporary relaxation of environmental restrictions to allow 40 percent allotments through water transfers from Northern California through the Sacramento River Delta to farms in the San Joaquin Valley.

But a close reading of the Bureau of Reclamation's release shows that farmers are actually only being promised a 5 percent allocation, and that anything higher than that is only a possibility -- and a remote one at best, according to Sarah Wolf, spokesperson for the Westlands Water District.

Westland gets all of its water from the federal Central Valley Project and has historically provided water for some 660,000 acres of West Side farmland.

Farms and cities in Northern California have been assured of 100 percent of normal allotments this year, and environmental interests are guaranteed full allotments as well. The excess will run out into the ocean. Yet farmers south of the delta will be lucky to see more than 5 percent of their allocations.

The challenge comes in being able to transfer that excess water through the Sacramento River Delta and into the San Joaquin Valley because of court- ordered restrictions on pumping water out of the delta. Even though there is adequate water this year, the Bureau of Reclamation is basically telling farmers south of the delta that "with the pumping restrictions in place, 'we can't get enough water through the delta to deliver you any more than that,'" Ms. Woolf said.

Even if the bureau does announce higher allotments later on, the problem is that growers need to make planting decisions now, she said.