Dry winter signals less irrigation for Central Valley farmers

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The Bureau of Reclamation, the federal agency that decides water allotments for Central Valley farms, has released a bleak water forecast for the upcoming growing season. Likewise, state water managers aren’t waiting for the next snow survey in March to make their estimates on how much to deliver to major water projects.

Deliveries to irrigation districts on the State Water Project are now being told to expect about half of what they are requesting, down from 60 percent. The Bureau of Reclamation announced on Wednesday that allotments for its Central Valley Project will go as low as 30 percent of what farmers are asking for.

The state Department of Water Resources issued this summary of the situation:

Water Year (October 1-September 30) runoff from rain and snow is forecasted to be far below average in both the Sacramento River and San Joaquin River systems. The median runoff forecast of 9.4 million acre-feet for the Sacramento River system would be the 16th driest in 106 years. The February 1 median water year runoff forecast of 3.2 million acre-feet for the San Joaquin River system would be the 21st driest in 111 years. Average runoff is 18.3 million acre-feet for the Sacramento system, and 5.9 million acre-feet for the San Joaquin.

Growers on the San Joaquin Valley’s west side are already taking steps to idle more land as east-side farmers are ratcheting up the search for more sources of water. Last year, west-side farmers received about 45 percent of requested allotments in the Bureau’s initial forecast. But things aren’t that somber, comparatively speaking.  In 2010, Central Valley farmers were told to expect 5 percent of allocations and zero the year prior.

In fact, despite well below-average winter precipitation and a dismal Sierra snow pack with only one month left to turn it all around, there looks to be one saving grace for farmers and residents:  a remarkable carry-over in state reservoirs from last water season. Owing to a remarkably wet 2010-11 winter, all major reservoirs stand at normal levels for this time of year.

Water district officials remain optimistic that things will improve.