It’s an exceptional year for Sierra snowpack — 150 to 200% in some places.
Mountain snow is the main water source for agriculture on the Valley’s west side.
But those farmers are getting just 65% of their allocation, raising the question, ‘what else has to happen for it to reach 100%?’
Fresno County Farm Bureau CEO Ryan Jacobsen says, “65% — that’s ridiculous in a year like this year.”
Jacobsen says it’s frustrating that in a water year this good, some farmers still can’t get enough of it to grow food. “We don’t have the reservoirs right now to take full advantage of what that Sierra snowpack offers on average.”
Before the Central Valley Project, the Valley’s water delivery system, there was virtually no other source for water on the Valley’s West Side besides pumping it out of the ground.
Farming in California meant years with deadly flooding or parching drought nearly as often as good years.
In the 1930s the Central Valley Project created a 400 mile network of water storage and delivery. Friant Dam tamed a San Joaquin River with wild flows, directing its water down three paths: the Friant-Madera Canal, the Friant-Kern Canal and the San Joaquin River.
This created some new extremes. Even in recent years, the San Joaquin River tended to dry up on its journey to the sea.
Bureau of Reclamation area manager Michael Jackson explains this effect is part of an “exchange” where water from the Delta is used to refill the San Joaquin River where it dries up — exchanged for the water transported away via the Friant-Madera and Friant-Kern Canals.
Project water is prioritized to different users.
At the top, those who essentially put their water into the system like exchange contractors.
For example, right now those part of Friant District have a 100% allocation.
Some lands have water rights.
Public interests are another priority, for cities, businesses and homes.
Finally, once these other demands are met through the state, water leftover can go for South of Delta agriculture.
This all changed with laws concerning environmental factors, essentially creating a new top priority. Still last on the list, West Side farmers feel this impact the most.
When water is scarce, each type of user is cut back to some extent, even water for environmental purposes.
Again, West Side farmers taking the biggest hit as water is scarce even without drought.
Population growth is fueling increased demand.
California’s growing economy adds industrial demand.
South-of-Delta ag takes a backseat again.
A number of large-scale projects have been proposed to close the gap.
Temperance Flat, a proposed dam and reservoir above Millerton Lake, is one of several large-scale projects studied by the Bureau.
It could contribute roughly 150 thousand acre feet of water a year.
But it wouldn’t all be used for farming.
The water would still be distributed among all Project users accordingly.
As for the San Joaquin Gorge, there’s no doubt Temperance Flat would forever trade one invaluable resource for another.
The Bureau has studied other large projects like the Enlarge Shasta Project.
But big projects aren’t the only solution.
Reclaimed water – which is clean water after sewage treatment – is already supplementing project water.
Jackson says, “About three years ago now Del Puerto water district partnered with Modesto and Turlock and others to brings some of their treated wastewater into the Delta Mendota Canal, which is their Central Valley Project Bureau of Reclamation facility. So that was the first of its kind, where reclaimed water was brought into our system to use to service ag and there were some [municipal and industrial] concerns but even the [municipal and industrial] folks like Santa Clara Valley Water District bought off on it.”
Water is also lost or bottlenecked in transport. The Bureau has a list of smaller-scale water-saving projects from pumping stations to refitting cracked and buckled canals.
But whatever the future holds, it seems water will have to trickle down through many places before ever reaching these fields.
Jacobsen says, “The more that we just try to utilize every drop… we all I think end up better here in the San Joaquin Valley.”