An already dire water situation for growers in the Del Puerto Water District, which runs along the Interstate 5 corridor from Vernalis to Santa Nella, grew marginally worse last week.
The federal Bureau of Reclamation, which oversees the Central Valley Project, announced that the 5 percent allocation for south-of-the-delta ag users such as Del Puerto would not be available for delivery until further notice.
The 5 percent allocation represents only about two inches of water per acre, said Anthea Hansen, Del Puerto’s general manager. But in a district where almonds, which require 36 inches or more of water to flourish, are a common crop and growers are already cobbling together various water sources to make it through the season any potential loss of water has ramifications.
But, Hansen pointed out, the bureau announcement does not represent a worst-case scenario.
“Removing (the allocation) altogether would have meant that they didn’t feel like there was a way they could reinstate it,” she told Mattos Newspapers. “Were it not for the recycled water that is produced monthly it would probably have some more serious implications. I am still working on my schedule. It is looking as if we are probably not going to have to delay any irrigation, but it is really too soon to tell.”
Hansen said the district will work closely with its growers on irrigation schedules to manage the available supply.
“Normally they place an order, and they irrigate,” she explained. “We may get to a situation where people need to take turns. We haven’t gotten there yet, but we are putting that plan together (if needed).”
Hansen estimated that the program which recycles treated wastewater from the cities of Modesto and Turlock will provide about six inches of water per acre to be used in Del Puerto fields and orchards.
Many growers have varying amounts of carryover water stored in San Luis Reservoir, she noted, which will be critical in the year ahead.
“I also have a third of growers with no water in their account,” Hansen explained. “Those are the folks who are in trouble right now. This situation is the exact reason why California needs more storage and the local districts need storage that they control.”
Some growers also have wells they can rely upon to a degree, she said, but groundwater in the district tends to be lacking in quantity and quality.
What water might become available through other outside sources will likely command a premium price, Hansen said, which is particularly problematic given low market prices for almonds, a leading commodity in the district.
“I have been spending a majority of time making sure that any water we have stored is going to be available, and reaching out to neighboring agencies to see if there are any opportunities there,” Hansen said of efforts to acquire supplemental water. “It is slim picking. Everybody is looking for water.”
Hansen had previously told Mattos Newspapers that she anticipates a significant amount of open land will be fallowed in the district as growers concentrate their available water on permanent crops.
The water shortage may lead some growers to abandon permanent crops as well, she reflected, particularly older orchards.
In some respects, Hansen said, the current water crisis is even more challenging than the drought years of 2014-15 because of new limits on the amount of water the district can keep in storage.
“I don’t have the same flexibility. I don’t have the resources I had in 2014 and 2015. We have one-third of the water that we had in storage (in those years),” she stated.
According to the Bureau of Reclamation, as of March 23 Northern California has had only about 51 percent of average precipitation for this time of year, and statewide snow packs are only 63 percent of average.
Even as she puts strategies in place to navigate a challenging water year, Hansen said, she is also looking ahead to 2022.
“My mind is also very much on next year,” she reflected. “If we have another dry winter, this tragedy is going to really get worse. That is something we have to plan for.”