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Wednesday, March 17, 2010

U.S. Opens Spigot for California Farmers

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar announced a sharp increase in federal water supplies for California's agricultural Central Valley, further easing drought concerns in a state where El Niño rains have raised the mountain snowpack after three severely dry years.

Mr. Salazar said water allocations from the Central Valley Project in California, a system of aqueducts and reservoirs managed by the federal Bureau of Reclamation primarily for farmers in the region, would be increased this year to between 25% and 50% of the maximum amount allowed under ideal circumstances, based on conservative forecasts by his agency. That's up from a previous estimate of just 5% for the system's junior users.

The increase is made possible, Mr. Salazar said, in part because winter rains have helped replenish the state's biggest reservoir, Lake Shasta, which now stands at 81% of capacity, compared with 55% a year ago. A former Colorado farmer, Mr. Salazar said he moved up the announcement by a week or so "because people on the ground and farming need to have certainty."

The increases were welcome news across the parched valley, but in particular among farmers south of the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, where water allocations have been cut to as low as zero the past two years, following drought and environmental restrictions to protect fish. Water allocations are crucial not just for irrigating crops, but as a basis upon which bankers determine the size of loans to farmers.

"Growers can now go to their bankers with a firm allocation of some water supply going into this year," said Sarah Clark Woolf, spokeswoman for the Westlands Water District, which represents about 600 farmers south of the delta. That region has been one of the most economically devastated in California—with unemployment as high as 40% in some towns—as farmers have been unable to plant tomatoes, cantaloupes and other water-dependent crops. "This will now help them hire people again," Ms. Woolf said.

Water supplies for other parts of the state also appear improved from a year ago, though water managers said California is not out of the woods. "It's better, but we're still stuck in a cave," said Timothy Quinn, executive director of the Association of California Water Agencies.

California has long faced drought cycles, but the effects have become more serious in recent years, as the nation's most populous state has grown to almost 40 million residents. The infrastructure to move water vast distances has become less capable of keeping up with demand. In particular, the system of routing water from Northern California to Southern California via the Sacramento delta is under strain, in large part because of federal restrictions to protect species such as the endangered Delta smelt from pumps there.

California Sen. Dianne Feinstein had proposed legislation lifting some environmental restrictions. But she has tabled that amid work by Mr. Salazar and other members of President Barack Obama's administration to look at a broad solution to the delta problems, such as potentially building a new canal to bypass the delta altogether. "Here at Interior, our message is simple: we have all hands on deck" on this issue," Mr. Salazar said in a teleconference call Tuesday.

Meanwhile, state water officials said California probably wouldn't escape the effects of drought for at least another year, because many reservoirs remained well below capacity. Although the statewide snowpack was 111% of its annual average as of Monday, the ground is so dry that runoff into reservoirs is below normal, said Maury Roos, chief hydrologist at the California Department of Water Resources. "We're likely to be better off than the last three years, but I don't see quite enough coming to replenish the reservoirs," Mr. Roos said.

posted by CASFS 2006 @ 12:57 PM


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