Central Valley cities, growers will benefit from spring rains
By GARANCE BURKE
FRESNO, Calif. -- Farmers in California's vast agricultural valley will have no problem growing much of the nation's fall lettuce crop thanks to late-season storms that freed up more water to nurture their fields.
The massive farms dotting the arid southwestern part of the Central Valley will get 45 percent of the water they sought from federal pipes and canals, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said June 14. That is a major improvement on the 5 percent they expected to get in February.
The extra water will allow farmers to sow 2,000 more acres of lettuce, as well as more melons, broccoli and cauliflower, said a spokeswoman for the Westlands Water District, the country's largest irrigation district.
"This definitely is a dramatic change," said Sarah Woolf. "This will increase some acreage, and will help farmers lower their need to pump well water."
In normal years, Westlands farmers grow most of the country's spring and fall lettuce. But three years of drought and pumping restrictions from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta have forced growers to halve the number of acres devoted to the crop and lay off thousands of farmworkers.
Even now that a series of drenching storms has replenished many of California's reservoirs, Salazar cautioned that California was not yet past its water crisis. The lengthy drought has hammered the region, and pumping limits continue for cities and farms south of the Delta.
As the largest estuary on the West Coast, the foundering delta also serves as the hub of the state's water system. Massive state and federal pumps siphon drinking and irrigation water to more than 25 million Californians and the valley farms that grow much of the nation's fruits and vegetables.
But those pumps also reverse the Delta's flow in some areas, drawing in and killing a threatened fish species called the Delta smelt. The flows also misdirect juvenile salmon to interior parts of the Delta, meaning tens of thousands of migrating fish may never make it to the sea.
Until April, the California coast and much of the Oregon coast had been closed to commercial fishing for two years because of declining salmon runs, which West Coast fisherman claim is related to overpumping.
Farmers north of the Delta will still get 100 percent of their federal allocation, while cities and industrial water users south of the Delta will still get 75 percent, Salazar said.
The announcement also brings the federal allotment in line with the latest water allocation from the state Department of Water Resources, which also operates reservoirs and canals serving different users.
Democratic Rep. Jim Costa of Fresno painted the announcement as a political victory for those who lobbied Washington to boost irrigation supplies for his constituents.
"We took on Valley outsiders who tried to cut off our water," Costa said in a statement. "