Water forecast for west side rises

FRESNO — Interior Secretary Ken Salazar has announced a fivefold increase in the west valley irrigation supply for summer, but water officials wonder if the news has come in time to help farmers make last-minute crop plans.

Salazar raised the water forecast to 25 percent of the amount that west San Joaquin Valley growers are allowed each year from the Central Valley Project. Last month, he could only assure west siders of 5 percent.

Thanks to continuing March storms, the Tuesday announcement was moved a week ahead of schedule to help farmers with planning.

Officials added that allotments might be increased further in the coming months.

Salazar has personally delivered each forecast to California this year after receiving political pressure from lawmakers and water officials, who point to the west side's economic plight and increasing unemployment after three years of drought. Usually, water forecasts are made by lower-level federal officials in Sacramento.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-San Francisco, who had threatened legislation overriding environmental rules to ease the west side water shortage, and Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno, said they were pleased with the increase.

So was the federal project's largest customer, Westlands Water District. But district spokeswoman Sarah Woolf said the news might have come too late for farmers who needed assurance of additional water before they could get crop loans.

"There are guys who literally are still waiting to see if they can get a bank loan," Woolf said.

West side farmer Joe Del Bosque said many growers are in survival mode after receiving only a 10 percent supply last year.

Del Bosque fallowed 800 acres last year that would have grown processing tomatoes, cantaloupes and grains.

He will use the additional water announced Tuesday to keep his 670 acres of almond trees alive and to grow about 500 acres of cantaloupes.

"This will help us get through another year," Del Bosque said. "Last year, we were cut so deeply that many farmers are still struggling."

The increased forecast comes as the state completes its wettest year since 2006. The Sierra snowpack is above average for the season.

In the Northern San Joaquin Valley, the Modesto, Turlock and Oakdale irrigation districts provide much of the irrigation water to farmers in Stanislaus County. They will pay more for water this year in most cases, but they continue to have access to adequate supplies.

The MID, TID and OID draw from San Joaquin River tributaries, so they are less affected by delta fish protections. Still, they could lose some of their water via state and federal decisions aimed at protecting the lower San Joaquin.

Shasta Reservoir, which provides federal water for the south valley's west side, is at more than 100 percent of average for this date. But protections for dwindling fish species in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta may reduce water pumping for irrigation this spring.

The 25 percent projection for west side farmers is conservative, officials said.