Water deliveries up for Westside farms

FRESNO -- A series of drenching storms has replenished many of California's reservoirs, freeing up more water for parched farms and cities throughout the state, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said Tuesday.

Just in time for planting season, growers in the dry southwestern part of the Central Valley will get at least 25 percent of the water they seek each year from federal pipes and canals -- an improvement on the 5 percent announced last month.

Some of the nation's most productive farmland south of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta has been idled because of three years of drought coupled with federal water restrictions to protect Chinook salmon and other threatened native fish.

The shortages have caused economic distress in the San Joaquin Valley and heightened the policy debate surrounding the foundering delta, the largest estuary on the West Coast that serves as the hub of the state's water system.

"People who are on the ground, who are farming at this point in time need to have certainty," said Salazar, a former rancher and environmental lawyer. "We essentially are dealing with a system that is strained and is in collapse and has no certainty with respect to the water supply."

Despite the rash of storms, state Department of Water Resources officials said they could not boost water supplies for the rural and urban customers who rely on their parallel set of pipes and reservoirs.

Both agencies run the pumps that send water to more than 25 million Californians and the farms that produce half the nation's fruits and vegetables. If the rainfall continues, allocations could go up again provided water levels rise at Lake Oroville, the state's biggest reservoir, state water managers said.

As California officials struggle to craft a long-term solution for the delta, the federal government will accelerate its scheduled water allocation updates so farmers know how much they have on hand to irrigate their crops, Salazar said.