California's improved snowpack and runoff forecasts led Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar to announce Friday that farmers on the west side of California's Central Valley could receive up to 30% of their federally contracted water supplies this year.
That would be an increase over the 10% they received in 2009.
The allocation is contingent on whether 2010 is an average water year, Salazar said. Water deliveries could drop to just 5% of water service contracts if California experiences a dry year.
Friday also brought an announcement from California's Department of Water Resources (DWR), increasing anticipated 2010 State Water Project deliveries to California's water contractors from 5 to 15 percent of requests.
If the amount remains unchanged by the final allocation in late spring, it would be the lowest allocation percentage in the project's history, DWR said.
"Despite a relatively wet winter, our reservoir storage levels remain low,” said DWR Director Mark Cowin. "After three years of drought conditions and a number of mandated pumping restrictions, even a wet year won't get us out of the woods. We need increased conservation, a more reliable water delivery system and a comprehensive solution for California's water crisis.”
There's a 90% chance that the state's water allocation will improve as winter progresses and water conditions become clearer, said DWR. If average precipitation continues, the final allocation could reach 35% to 45% of requested amounts, the state agency added.
California Senator Dianne Feinstein said she was pleased with the federal government's allocation increase.
"Given all the recent precipitation, and the likelihood that it will continue, I believe this means that South of Delta Agricultural water users will receive at least 30% of their contractual federal water allocation,” Feinstein said in a Feb. 26 news release.
"In addition, the Department has confirmed with me that it is working to achieve the equivalent of an additional 8-10% further allocation through various administrative actions which are all consistent with, and within, the biological opinions,” she said. "This is very good news.”
Even so, Feinstein said she would continue to watch the situation carefully. Last month, she proposed attaching an amendment to the Senate jobs bill seeking increased water allocations for California farmers.
"I am placing my proposed amendment on hold,” Feinstein said. "However, I reserve the right to bring it back should it become necessary.”
While Salazar's announcement "could have been worse, it was not what we were hoping for,” said Brandon Middleton, an attorney with Pacific Legal Foundation. The organization fights for limited government, property rights, individual rights and a balanced approach to environmental protection.
Farmers need a definite announcement of water allocation to plan for the coming year, said Middleton. Salazar's announcement included the possibility of only 5% water allocations if California gets limited precipitation.
"The key word is ‘if,' and it's a very big ‘if,'” Middleton said.
Salazar said federal and state agencies and many stakeholders would be working to secure additional water supplies for farmers on the Central Valley's west side.
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Catherine Merlo is Western editor for Dairy Today. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.