CIRS Blog about Rural California

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The 2015-16 water year was close to normal; the state's 154 major reservoirs held almost 22 million acre-feet of water on April 1, 2016, more than 85 percent of normal. Federal and state farm water contractors are likely to get half or more of the water that they want. Each water district contracts for a specific share of the surface water available to the federal Central Valley Project and the State Water Project, and CVP and SWP managers provide a percentage of each district's contracted water based on availability.

The California water system accumulates water as snow in northern California mountains and moves the water south via the Sacramento-San Joaquin river delta as the snow melts in summer. However, pumping water from the delta into the aqueduct that moves water south is often restricted to preserve juvenile fish that can be sucked into the pumps.

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Westside farmers got dismal news April 1 when the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation announced a 5 percent water allocation for 2016.

Farmers say the paltry allocation will mean thousands of acres in one of the nation’s most productive farming regions will continue to be fallowed.

“This is going to hurt,” said Sal Parra, a westside grower who farms various crops. “We have already fallowed about 5,000 acres and cut back our workers’ hours. It’s like we can’t get ahead.”

The San Joaquin Valley, especially the westside, has been hit especially hard by a four-year drought. In the sprawling Westlands Water District, officials say at least 200,000 acres will not be farmed because of a lack of water.

Over the last two years, farmers in Westlands have received a zero water allocation from the Central Valley Project – the system that supplies water to farmers from the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta.

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This is the first of four briefs on California’s water infrastructure by CIRS and partners. This brief explains California’s surface water infrastructure. The next brief will focus on ground water management. A third brief will address water quality and the fourth will summarize significant proposals to address California’s water needs. The goal of these short papers is to provide a road map to understanding the conversation around California water issues. All briefs will be featured on the Rural California Report and will be available as downloadable files. Here is a PDF version of the first brief: CA-Surface-Water-Brief-Poppy-Davis.pdf

The largest water projects in the state are the Central Valley Project (CVP) a Federal project administered by the Bureau of Reclamation (BoR) of the Department of the Interior, and the State Water Project (SWP) a project of the California Department of Water Resources (DWR). There are multiple smaller projects under both the BoR and the DWR.The CVP includes 22 reservoirs with a combined storage of 11 million acre-feet, of which 7 million acre-feet is delivered in an average year. The SWP includes 34 storage facilities, reservoirs and lakes; 20 pumping plants; 4 pumping-generating plants; 5 hydroelectric power plants; and about 701 miles of open canals and pipelines. It has a total storage 5.8 million acre-feet, and typically delivers about 3 million acre-feet a year. The CVP and SWP deliver water to local water projects who serve end users. 

“Water projects” are made up of multiple facilities and contractual relationships. The role of the BoR or DWR is to finance construction with an appropriation or a bond, and to build and own the infrastructure. Local agencies enter into contracts to pay back the construction costs, and cover annual operations and maintenance costs. These “contractors” receive annual allocations of the water from the project; which they manage locally. Contractors may purchase water from multiple sources and may make arrangements to store or bank an annual surplus within the project.  In a dry year different contractors on the same project may not feel equal pain, because some contractors may be able to use or purchase “banked” water and others may be receiving only a fraction (or none) of their normal allocation. “Exchange Contractors” are property owners whose contract rights to project water were received in exchange for enabling the project by surrendering their original water rights.

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