Interior Secretary Ken Salazar on Thursday bumped up the allocation of federal irrigation water for west San Joaquin Valley farmers who have been hit hard by drought and fish protections.
They will get 30 percent of the contracted amount from the Central Valley Project this year, up from 25 percent last month and 5 percent in February.
The boost was made possible by the above-average rain and snow this year, but the growers still face large reductions aimed at protecting fish in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.
Rep. Dennis Cardoza, D-Merced, welcomed the increase.
"We clearly have much work to do to get the (delta) pumps operating at full capacity and the allocations further increased," he said. "However, we are seeing some progress, and for this I am pleased."
In the parts of the valley affected by the cutbacks, growers have been fallowing land, drilling wells and buying costly water from elsewhere. The affected area includes parts of west San Joaquin, Stanislaus and Merced counties.
The situation is better in places where irrigators have stronger water rights and ample reservoir storage. These include the Modesto, Turlock, Oakdale and South San Joaquin irrigation districts, which do not draw directly from the delta.
The west valley situation has become a major election issue. Boosting the supply was one of the main topics of the visit to Hughson last week by Carly Fiorina, a Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate.
Farmers getting the federal boost to 30 percent say they need 10 percent more to make it through the year. Salazar on Thursday renewed his pledge to find this water.
"It is through our strong partnerships that we can best address the Central Valley Project's water supply challenges — both short term and long term," he said. "We, along with agencies and stakeholders, are fully engaged in developing water supply solutions while at the same time honoring conservation requirements and contract responsibilities."
Officials in the vast Westlands Water District, southwest of Fresno, said the increase in water could prompt some growers to plant additional acres of row crops.
But the real benefit may come in reducing the farmers' heavy pumping from wells.
"We know that we have used them to extreme excess," Westlands spokeswoman Sarah Woolf said. "And this will help relieve that."
The increase comes as the state completes its wettest year since 2006.
Shasta Reservoir, the main storage site for federal water bound for the valley, was at 106 percent of the average for the past 15 years Thursday, according to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. It and other reservoirs had dropped after three years of drought.
Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno, said the increased allotment "is proof that we are winning our fight for water. Every additional drop we secure puts people back to work and helps get our economy going again."
Bee staff writer John Holland can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 578-2385.