As California drought continues, feds could seize water

Michael DoyleMcClatchy Newspapers,Mark Grossi

Farmers from California’s San Joaquin Valley set aside precious water last year, like money in a bank.

But now someone else might claim the investment.

With the state extremely dry, the farmers fear federal officials could effectively seize for other purposes the water set aside primarily in San Luis Reservoir on the valley’s west side. Affected farmers say that would be wrong. Unfortunately for them, it might also be legal.

"The only reason water is in San Luis Reservoir is that farmers planned ahead last year and saved water for this year," Mark Borba, a farmer in the Westlands Water District, said Monday. "The water is owned and paid-for by farmers.”

At the very least, the struggle boiling up over “rescheduled” or “carryover” water underscores the tricky balancing act that California’s drought now forces on farmers, water managers and lawmakers alike. As reservoir levels drop, myriad competing tradeoffs are coming to light. The longer the drought lasts, the harder these choices become.

“We understand they’ve got a complex situation to deal with,” Rep. Jim Costa, D-Calif., said Monday. “It’s sensitive and delicate, obviously.”

The water currently in question includes about 340,000 acre-feet stored at San Luis Reservoir on behalf of west side farmers, as well as a significantly smaller amount stored behind Friant Dam on behalf of farmers on the valley’s east side. The water was provided through the federal Central Valley Project, a Redding-to-Bakersfield network of reservoirs, pumping plants and canals.

Some irrigation districts last year were able to meet their aquatic demands without fully tapping their CVP contracts. What they didn’t use, they had the federal Bureau of Reclamation store and carry over until this year. Usually, that’s not a problem. But over the last week or so, as federal officials have confronted the enormity of California’s drought, they have declined to rule out the possibility of taking the carried-over water for other, legally compelling purposes.

“In the past, the bureau’s policy has always been to respect these (water) rescheduling efforts,” Costa said. “Where it gets complicated is when you have three consecutive dry years.”

Joined by Republican Reps. Kevin McCarthy, David Valadao and Devin Nunes, as well as Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein, Costa is urging the Interior Department not to redirect the so-called carryover water to other purposes. The bipartisan political muscle may be hard to ignore.

The federal Bureau of Reclamation, though, must also listen to those with legally compelling claims on San Joaquin Valley water. These include farmers between Patterson and Mendota, known as the San Joaquin River Exchange Contractors.

The exchange contractors are so-called because they exchanged their claims on San Joaquin River water for other water delivered by the federal project. Their water rights that date back to the 19th century, however, still remain senior to other valley irrigation districts. If push comes to shove, in a way that it never has before, the exchange contractors can cut in line ahead of east side farmers and get water stored at Millerton Lake. Politically, that would be messy.

That’s where the stored carryover water might come in. To meet the exchange contractors’ demands without going to Millerton Lake, federal officials could theoretically divert some of the carried-over water stored elsewhere. That would equally messy.

"So where will the bureau get water?" asked Ron Jacobsma, general manager of the Friant Water Authority, representing 15,000 east valley growers who get water from Millerton Lake. "Do you get it from the east side or the west side? It gets to be a very sticky situation."

The Bureau of Reclamation is set to announce its initial water allocations in late February. With reservoir levels down and the state’s snow pack at only 13 percent of average, water district officials expect a zero allocation on the valley’s west side and possibly the same for the east side.

By Michael Doyle and Mark Grossi
McClatchy Washington Bureau