California storms improve initial federal water allocations

LOS ANGELES (AP) — After early winter storms put a dent in California’s drought, officials Wednesday cautiously announced a jump in initial allocations of federally controlled water to agricultural, municipal and industrial users of the Central Valley Project system.

Nine atmospheric river storms from late December into January greatly improved the water supply outlook following three years of record drought, U.S. Bureau of Reclamation Regional Director Ernest Conant said in an online briefing.

Major Central Valley Project reservoirs that were dwindling have since been rising, and the Sierra Nevada snowpack, a key source of water when it melts, is well above average.

“However, we’re all too aware of uncertainties that exist and how rapidly conditions in California can change,” Conant said. “And not all river basins were equally improved, highlighting the need that late winter and early spring rain and snow is still needed.”

The Central Valley Project is a federally operated system of dams, reservoirs and canals. It’s one of two major water systems California relies on for agriculture, drinking water and the environment. The other system is run by the state.

More than 250 agencies — mostly irrigation districts — contract with the federal government for certain amounts of water each year, and the Bureau of Reclamation announces each February how much of those contracts can be filled. Updates follow as conditions change.

Two years ago, farmers in the state’s major agricultural region started with 5% of their allocation and ended at 0% as drought intensified. A year ago, the bureau announced that it would not deliver any water to those farmers, and water for other uses including drinking and industrial purposes was allocated at 25%.

This year, contractors serving many farms will get 35% of their contracted supplies and those that hold so-called senior water rights will get 100%, as will wildlife refuges.

Municipal and industrial contractors have been allocated 75% of their historic use or public health and safety needs, whichever is greater.

Jose Gutierrez, interim general manager of the Westlands Water District — the nation’s largest agricultural water district — said he was grateful for the 35% allocation and hoped that precipitation would continue to fall.

“The past two years of 0% resulted in over 223,000 acres (90,245 hectares), approximately 36% of the District’s farmland, being fallowed in Westlands,” Gutierrez said in a statement.

“An adequate and reliable supply of surface water is critical to the viability of the communities and farms in the San Joaquin Valley and their ability to feed the world,” he said.

The federal outlook is in line with the California Department of Water Resources, which said Wednesday it now expects the State Water Project to deliver 35% of requested water to 29 public water agencies, an increase from the 30% it forecast in January.

The water supply estimates were announced as forecasters blanketed the state with blizzard and winter storm warnings following several weeks of a largely dry February.