REDDING, Calif. — Farmers in some water districts along the Sacramento River will be the first to see a benefit from recent storms’ contributions to California’s meager snowpack and reservoir levels.
The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation has increased water allocations to settlement contractors along the river from 40 percent to 75 percent of their normal amounts, its leaders announced April 18. Wildlife refuges north of the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta will see a similar increase.
The roughly 145 water districts and individuals with 50-year-old contracts recognizing their senior water rights include the Glenn-Colusa Irrigation District, which covers 175,000 acres in the middle Sacramento Valley, and the Anderson Cottonwood Irrigation District between Redding and Red Bluff.
The allocation boost should help many of Northern California’s most lucrative crops, including rice, which is normally planted in late April and early May. Industry leaders had expressed concerns that a lack of water could significantly reduce rice plantings this spring.
Water districts said the shifts in delivery shouldn’t impact rice planting, asserted Ron Milligan, a Bureau of Reclamation operations manager in Sacramento.
“In dry years like 2014, we need every drop of water to be used in an efficient way to benefit both the economy and the environment,” GCID board president Don Bransford said in a statement. “The operations along the Sacramento River this year will serve triple duty: the water will be used for salmon, for birds along the Pacific Flyway and for family farms in the region.”
The contractors agreed to shift their delivery schedules to maintain the right river temperatures for winter run salmon, officials said. Waiting until May to begin diversions has left 150,000 acre-feet in Shasta Lake to be used later in temperature-controlled releases.
“The winter run is not yet out of the woods” in terms of impacts from drought, state Department of Fish and Wildlife director Charlton Bonham told reporters in a conference call.
The announcement was one of several as state and federal water agencies were responding to February and March storms that impacted the water hydrology within their two water projects.
As part of this, state Department of Water Resources director Mark Cowin said agricultural and other customers without senior water rights would receive 5 percent of their normal deliveries, an increase from the zero-water allocation the DWR imposed earlier this year. However, water won’t be made available until after Sept. 1 so it can be kept in the San Luis Reservoir to maintain water quality during the summer, officials said.
“I don’t expect this to make a tremendous amount of difference to Californians,” Cowin said, adding that it may add some flexibility for water transfers. For agriculture, he expects it will result in a “minor reduction in the amount of extraction from groundwater,” he said.
While federal officials are continuing to examine the impact of late-season rain on the state’s water supply, they don’t expect to change their zero-water allocation to agricultural customers, at least this month, Milligan said.
The latest announcements came about a week after state and federal agencies unveiled a multi-stage Drought Operations Plan that aims to ensure adequate water supply for basic needs like drinking water and firefighting while preventing saltwater from migrating into California’s water delivery system.
Officials announced April 18 that runoff fueled by recent storms has enabled them to scrap a plan to build temporary rock structures in the Delta to keep saltwater out.