Federal officials are pumping an extra billion gallons of river water daily into San Luis Reservoir for west Valley farmers, thanks to a federal judge's order and a string of winter storms.
But if the storms disappear, the full-blast pumping could stop far sooner than the two weeks ordered by the judge.
West San Joaquin Valley farm leaders say the extra water would help them keep stressed orchards and vineyards alive. There's even a small chance some idled acreage would be brought back into production, which would help a region suffering from widespread job losses.
U.S. District Judge Oliver Wanger on Friday set aside pumping restrictions designed to protect the endangered winter-run salmon from being chewed up in giant water pumps. Winter storms are making rivers run high, keeping fish away from the pumps and flushing ocean salt water away from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.
The added pumping will continue for two weeks, unless too many fish die or too much salty water is drawn into the area.
Federal officials Monday said they might have immediately challenged the court order if not for the storms.
"With the court order and the big rainfall, we've got a perfect storm of things going on that allowed the increase in pumping," said Pete Lucero, spokesman for the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which owns the pumps and the Central Valley Water Project.
Wanger is scheduled today to hear arguments in Fresno about rewriting the salmon management plan.
Wanger's temporary restraining order Friday set aside a pump-reduction threshold tied to so-called reverse flows in the delta, where the pumps are located.
Pumping causes the San Joaquin to reverse direction for a short distance before flowing into a canal.
Migrating fish are known to become confused by the change in flow and move toward the pumps.
To minimize the loss of fish, federal officials slow down the pumps, which results in less water for farmers.
Federal officials said it is not unusual for the pumps to run wide open during February -- but the last year when this occurred was 2007.
Though Wanger set the threshold aside for now, the extra pumping could be stopped at any time if too many protected species of fish -- salmon and a minnow called delta smelt -- die at the pumps.
Officials also would petition Wanger for an immediate cutback if the delta became too salty with ocean water.
The additional water in San Luis Reservoir is welcome news to west Valley farmers who got only 10% of their federal allotments last year.
Pumping cutbacks for the ecosystem last year were blamed for about 25% of farm water losses. The rest was due to drought. About a third of the 600,000-acre Westlands Water District in west Fresno and Kings counties was left barren, driving chronic double-digit unemployment beyond 30% on the west side.
This year, if the pumping continues for two weeks, about 45,000 acre-feet more water would be made available. That's less than 5% of the water in Westlands' federal contract.
But the additional water would allow Westlands farmers to use higher-quality delta water on permanent crops, such as almonds, pistachios and grapes.
Farmers without permanent crops might expand their acreage of row crops commonly grown on the west side, such as processing tomatoes, lettuce or melons.
"Everybody is looking at their water budgets on a daily basis," said longtime west-side farmer Mark Borba. "And if this allows them to plant additional acreage ... they may do that."
Federal officials next week are expected to make their first forecast of summer water deliveries. Last year, the first forecast was zero. More federal water means using less well water.
Farm leaders say the underground water should be saved for the future.
"Anything that stalls the use of more ground water pumping is a benefit to the region," said west-side farmer Dan Errotabere, president of the Fresno County Farm Bureau.
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