Industry News - Farmers scramble to bolster water supplies

Source : Appeal-Democrat (Marysville, CA)
Date : 2014-04-27
April 27 --Thousands upon thousands of acres of crops in Yuba - Sutter will receive no surface water this summer. The chances of that changing have dwindled to almost nothing.

After months of uncertainty, the water delivery picture in California has finally crystallized, and the end result has varied depending on water rights seniority.

Settlement contractors on the Sacramento River , the most senior water rights holders, saw their water delivery increase from a 40 percent allocation to 75 percent.

But left behind in the allotment increases were water service contractors, and most are left scrambling to cobble together enough water -- either through groundwater pumping or water transfers -- to plant what they can or, for the orchard farmers, simply keep their crops alive.

Ultimately, about 3 million acre-feet of water (almost 1 trillion gallons) will not be delivered by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation to 165 contractors on the Central Valley Project , said Louis Moore , Bureau spokesman.

That number is statewide. Moore couldn't provide a figure for Yuba - Sutter .

Measuring the impact locally is a challenge. Local water districts acquire water from numerous sources that, depending on seniority, have been allocated different amounts of water.

Some farmers have groundwater pumps to make up for the lack of surface water deliveries; others don't. Not to mention the fact that groundwater pumping is not regulated by the state, making it difficult to track.

"It's hard to generalize about it," said David Guy , president of the Northern California Water Association . "There is going to be some significant land fallowed in the Sacramento Valley , no question about it." It helps to take a broad view of the impacts of the lack of water deliveries. The Tehama-Colusa Canal Authority , which irrigates more than 150,000 acres across four counties, is a good place to start.

The authority is in dire straits, but things are looking up after a flurry of activity left the canal authority close to meeting grower demands for 70,000 acres of orchards, said general manager Jeff Sutton .

"We've really seen the Sacramento Valley work together. Folks are trying to make water available to their neighbors in a bad situation," Sutton said.

Sutton anticipates 80,000 acres of annual crops, such as rice, will be fallowed. The other 70,000 acres are permanent crops, where fallowing isn't an option.

"Our focus has been to prevent catastrophic disaster from the loss of the permanent crop investment," Sutton said.

The farmland served by the canal lacks a substantial groundwater aquifer, which is the reason the canal was constructed in the first place, Sutton said.

The impact on the economy will be substantial. Sutton said the region's growers provide about $1 billion to the annual economy in a normal year.

Silver lining for some districts

An increase in the water allotment to senior water rights holders on the Sacramento River came with a silver lining for other water districts still facing a 0 percent water allocation.

Those districts hopes were pinned on water transfers, and the notion that, as senior contractors received more water, there would be a greater chance that water could be purchased.

The Tehama-Colusa Canal Authority has already been authorized to purchase up to 155,000 acre feet of water from north-of-delta settlement contractors. The water would be made available by land idling or crop shifting.

The Glenn-Colusa Irrigation District , the largest contractor on the Sacramento River , does not have a clear idea of how much water its growers will be willing to transfer, said Thad Bettner , general manager.

The district is busy processing about 900 grower applications -- typically a month-long process that has been condensed into a week, as a result of a later-than-usual water allocation announcement by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation , Bettner said.

"It's been pretty hectic for our growers and our staff," Bettner said. "Our goal is to get water out first to our growers and then address transfer."

The decision of transferring water by fallowing their ground is entirely up to the grower. Bettner said that some are interested in water transfers, but others want to farm their land with the water they have.

Impact on rice

Most of the impacts of this year's drought and limited surface water supplies will be focused on rice crops.

Permanent crops, such as orchards, with their massive start-up costs that are paid off over the life of the trees, are at the top of the priority list for water districts meeting growers demands.

The California Rice Commission is estimating a 25 percent reduction in the state's rice crop, equating to about 100,000 of fallowed land.

"Rice is really only grown in the Sacramento Valley , so it's really a local impact," said Nicole Van Vleck , vice-president of the Sutter Bypass Buttes Slough Water Users Association .

The association is estimating that about 12,000 acres of land won't get water, Van Vleck said.

Van Vleck is also the managing partner at Monta Farms , a major local rice producer. She said that 42 percent of the land will not receive water, resulting in more than 1,500 acres fallowed.

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