Farms, smelt hang in balance during Valley drought

Over the next six weeks, the fortunes of farmers in the Valley depend on a 3-inch fish and the weather 250 miles away.

The dwindling delta smelt needs to stay away from giant Northern California pumps, so water can be sent south. And big storms must hit the north state so the pumps can be turned on full blast.

It's make-or-break time for the federal Central Valley Project, which must store as much water as possible in reservoirs for summer irrigation -- despite a third year of drought in California.

Storms in the past few weeks have brought precipitation totals closer to seasonal averages. But federal officials haven't been able to fully open the spigot at the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, which supplies much of the state's water, for fear of sucking the federally protected smelt into the pumps.

As a result, billions of gallons of water last month flowed to the ocean instead of being sent to depleted San Luis Reservoir in western Merced County for west-side farmers.

Storage of Central Valley Project water at San Luis is at the lowest in a quarter-century -- about a third of its usual level. That is devastating not only for farmers on the west side, but potentially those on the east side of the Valley as well.

West-side water officials filed a federal lawsuit this week, asking a judge to ease the pumping restrictions at the delta. But a lot of water already has been lost, said one official with the San Luis & Delta-Mendota Water Authority, a plaintiff in the lawsuit.

"We normally target to have San Luis full about the middle of March," said executive director Dan Nelson. "This year, we're not even going to come close."

San Luis is roughly four times the size of Millerton Lake, which stores water from the southern Sierra flowing down the San Joaquin River. This year, it has become a focal point for farmers all over the Valley.

San Luis is the nation's largest reservoir without a natural stream to fill it. River water must be pumped from the delta to San Luis, where it is kept for use later in the year.

The reservoir provides federal irrigation water to hundreds of thousands of west-side acres, much of it in Westlands Water District. Those farmers are forecast to get no federal water this year.

In addition, there may not be enough San Luis water for a different set of farmers -- west-siders who decades ago traded San Joaquin River rights for a guaranteed supply of federal water.

Federal officials may have to tap Millerton Lake to get the water for high-priority west-siders. That has never happened before. But if it does, east Valley farmers -- irrigating 1 million acres -- would suffer shortfalls.

Even city customers, such as Fresno and Orange Cove, would lose some Millerton water. Farmers and city customers already are planning on getting only 25% of annual Millerton allotments.

Water officials expect one of three weather scenarios over the coming weeks, two of which could trigger shortages on both the east and west sides:

If there's a series of big storms in Northern California, problems would be eased considerably for fish and farmers. That's the best scenario for the farming community. There probably would be enough water flow to keep smelt from being caught and killed in the pumps.

If it's a dry March and April, there could be widespread shortages and possibly disaster in the farming industry. The smelt population might suffer as well. Less water means unhealthy conditions for the fish.

If precipitation picks up just a little and gets about average in the north, more smelt would have a better chance of survival. But, strangely, this might be the worst-case scenario for east-side farmers.

Why? A moderate increase in snowmelt and runoff into Shasta Reservoir, at the north end of the Central Valley Project, would require water managers to bump up the high-priority west-side farmers from a forecast of 77% deliveries to a full 100%.

Many already believe that will happen, because of the recent stormy weather has brought the snowpack to 90% of average in the north.

In past years, federal officials could just send the necessary water from Shasta across the delta and pump it south to San Luis Reservoir. But that doesn't appear likely this year because of fish protections.

So the federal government would need to take even more water from Millerton Lake. Perhaps hundreds of thousands of acre-feet would come out of Millerton for the high-priority west-siders.

Each acre-foot is about 326,000 gallons, or a 12- to 18-month supply of water for an average family.

Ron Jacobsma, general manager of the Friant Water Users Authority, said he and other officials talk daily with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which operates the Central Valley Project, including Millerton Lake. There are lots of questions, but no answers yet.

"Can the additional water in Northern California be moved across the delta to alleviate the potential need for a release from Friant?" Jacobsma asked in an e-mail. "Is the San Joaquin River watershed keeping up with potential increases in demands? We are working with reclamation to continue to evaluate 'what if' scenarios."

Further frustrating east-siders, the snowpack in the southern Sierra is 88% of average. Without the unprecedented threat of a water demand from the high-priority west-siders, east-side farmers probably would get 100% of their high-priority allotments.

And farmers all over the Valley deal with the uncertainty of when water increases might be announced. Loans and crop plans already are in place. If more water becomes available later in the season, it is sometimes too late for farmers.

The angst will continue well into April, but a series of March storms could brighten the picture quite a bit, say Bureau of Reclamation officials. Paul Fujitani, chief of the bureau's water operations division, said northern rivers are looking much better now than they did a month ago.

"We're having a couple of good weeks of rainfall," he said. "We'll see what happens next."The reporter can be reached at or (559) 441-6316.