EXPLAINER: California farmers hit again with water cuts | Scientific news

By SUMAN NAISHADHAM, Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) — Farmers in central California will again receive little to no water from a key water system amid persistent drought, but exactly how they will be affected will vary.

The Bureau of Reclamation said last week it would be unable to supply some farmers with water from the Central Valley Project, a vast system of dams, reservoirs and canals it oversees in the state.

This means that farmers in the agricultural region that produces much of the country’s fruit, nuts and vegetables will again have to find alternative sources of water – or leave land unused as many have done in recent years. .

“It’s part of the economics that growers have to consider when deciding what to plant or irrigate,” said Ara Azhderian, who runs a water district near Fresno that uses water from the Central Valley Project. .

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WHAT IS THE CENTRAL VALLEY PROJECT?

It is one of California’s two major water systems that supplies water to farms, cities, and others across the state. California oversees the other system, the State Water Project.

The Central Valley project spans 400 miles (644 kilometers) from north to south and taps into the Sacramento and San Joaquin river basins.

The federal government has more than 270 contracts to supply system water to irrigation districts, farmers and cities. Most of the water is used for agriculture, serving seven of California’s 10 major agricultural counties. Some of the water also goes to cities and environmental restoration efforts for fish and wildlife.

Water cuts will not affect all farmers in the region in the same way. California’s water rights system determines who gets how much water and when, especially during dry periods.

Even in times of drought, some farmers with superior water rights are entitled to 75% of their allocations. But this year, even those deliveries could be reduced.

“It’s pretty certain they won’t get their full 75% just because we don’t have the water available,” said Ernest Conant, Reclamation’s director for the California-Great Basin region.

On the Sacramento River, 145 primary water rights holders have claims to approximately 20% of the water contracted under the Central Valley project. In the San Joaquin Basin, four major water districts have superior rights, Reclamation said.

Farmers without superior rights, meanwhile, will not get any of the water allocated to them. Cities will get 25% of what they were promised.

WHERE WILL FARMERS GET WATER INSTEAD?

Their options include purchasing additional water from other water users or irrigation districts. Producers can also pump groundwater where it is available.

Ryan Ferguson, a central California farmer who grows pistachios, almonds, tomatoes and cotton, said between 40 and 60 percent of his farm’s water comes from the Central Valley Project. Another third comes from additional water purchased at a higher price outside its water district. It also relies more on pumped groundwater.

“It gives us some confidence,” he said.

Still, Ferguson said he plans to fallow 40% of his 3,000-acre (1,214-hectare) ranch this year due to a lack of water. He probably won’t be alone.

A University of California Merced study found that last year’s drought caused 395,100 acres (159,900 hectares) of farmland to become unemployed and 8,745 farm jobs to be lost, leading to job losses. $1.2 billion.

Water managers and farmers have become accustomed to the cuts in recent years and have been waiting for the announcement.

Still, “it’s always disappointing to hear zero percent,” said Jose Gutierrez, chief operating officer of Westlands Water District, the nation’s largest agricultural water district.

Farmers without superior rights also did not receive water from the Central Valley project in 2014 and 2015. They got half of what was allocated in their contracts in 2020. Last year they started with 5 % of their allocation and ended the year at 0% as drought gripped the state.

Getting less than half of its allocated water has become typical for the Westlands district over the past 30 years, Gutierrez said.

If the coming months bring wetter weather, the federal government may end up providing water to farmers.

“But even if we get a miracle in March, it’s going to be a pretty low allocation like last year,” Reclamation’s Conant said.

In short, drought. Last year was the second driest year in California based on precipitation levels amid a 22-year mega-drought enveloping the West. Heavy rains in October and December brought some hope, but January and February were extremely dry.

This left many reservoirs in the state at or near historic lows.

Much of California’s water supply comes from snowmelt from the Sierra Nevada Mountains. And snow levels there are currently at 63% of the average for this time of year.

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