Rainfall, snowpack -- and a paltry allocation to a powerful water district

In the weeks leading up to the Bureau of Reclamation's announcement about how much water would be available to Californians next year, some users waited with anticipation, others with dread.

Heavy rains in March and a plentiful snowpack had raised hopes for farmers denied their usual allotments of inexpensive federal water by the four-year drought. Bureau officials had just dumped thousands of cubic feet of water from the Shasta Reservoir, the state's biggest, because it was in danger of overflowing from early snowmelt.

When the announcement came last Friday, many were relieved. Many of the water districts served by the Central Valley Project would receive allocations of 100%.

For one small but powerful group, however, the bureau's allocation was infuriating. The Westlands Water District, known for its affluent Republican farmers, its political clout and its bedeviling lack of water, would receive a paltry 5% of its federal water allocation.

Its 1,000 square miles of once-arid range land lie along the east side of Interstate 5, southwest of Fresno. Next year, growers will have to rely on water they have banked in the San Luis Reservoir, buy it at market rates from other users, or fallow more fields.

"Despicable," said Fresno County Agricultural Commissioner Les Wright.

"We are furious," said Jason Peltier, executive director of the San Luis & Delta-Mendota Water Authority, which includes Westlands.

"A complete joke," said Fresno County Supervisor Buddy Mendes.

Maybe. But it wasn't a surprise.

For weeks, Westlands officials had prepared growers for bad news. They expected a zero allocation for the third year in a row. In the complicated, legally fraught hierarchy of federal and state water allocation, Westlands has little priority.

It is also at the mercy of environmental rules that determine when Northern California water can be pumped across the environmentally fragile Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta into the pipes, aqueducts and canals that bring water south. Those rules tightened up considerably after much litigation a decade or so ago. Westlands growers are now finely tuned to the biological vagaries of the endangered delta smelt.

Did farmers overplay their anger to make a point? Maybe.

"The outrage is because we see all this water, we see that we've had decent rainfall and a snowpack," said Sarah Woolf, whose family are major Westside growers. "But if you went in and asked the Department of Water Resources and the Bureau of Reclamation how they make their decisions, you can't get an answer. There's no accountability."

She is correct. It's not possible to get a straight answer about how, exactly, the allocation was determined. There is no published formula, no magic algorithm. State and federal agencies knock heads to divvy up an uncertain water supply. Some farmers, and fish, come before other farmers.

"A lot of it has been timing and their location," said reclamation bureau spokesman Shane Hunt. "Unofficially, I call it the hangover effect of the drought. We're hopeful that next year will be much better for them."

Like many Californians who have observed this complicated, emotional conflict over the years, I support efforts to preserve endangered species and to promote a healthy delta. I cringe when I hear Republican political candidates describe the environmental rules as "putting fish before families," or see the signs along Highway 99 fields proclaiming a "Congress-made drought."

But vilifying growers — even big, powerful, whiny ones who do unethical things to keep water rates low, as the Securities and Exchange Commission has charged — does not cut it for me. These folks are not making bombs; they are feeding the world.

The other day, I stopped in to see Bill Diedrich, a thoughtful, fourth-generation California grower in Fresno, who told me that Westlands' bad rap is partly self-inflicted.

The water issues are severe, but growers appear to be managing fine: "We have been crying wolf since 2009, and people look around and say, 'I don't see anything the matter here. There are a few empty fields, but look at your county production! You guys just set another record, but everyone is screaming 'No water!'"

Well, certainly no cheap water.


On Tuesday, I met with Johnny Amaral, Westlands' deputy general manager for external affairs. A former chief of staff to San Joaquin Valley Republican U.S. Rep. Devin Nunes, he is one of Westlands' many deeply experienced political hands.

We chatted in the water district's well-worn conference room under a map showing the 29 water agencies, including Westlands, served by the San Luis Reservoir. About a third of Westlands' 600,000 acres are fallow, partly because of long-standing drainage problems, partly because of water scarcity. Still, its growers produce a billion dollars' worth of food each year.

"This is the most productive land on the planet," Amaral said. "We have the perfect soil, the perfect climate. All it takes is water, and it's a growing machine. People who don't like what we do use phrases like, 'They are irrigating a desert.' Well, the whole damn state of California is a desert."

I take his point.

So much of the California we inhabit is a dream realized by human ingenuity yoked to a vast disregard for the laws of nature — including, say, the survival needs of tiny fish.

On my way out of the Valley, I stopped at the San Luis Reservoir visitors center, where I spotted a yellowed 1971 newspaper clipping. Just east of the Grapevine, California Gov. Ronald Reagan presided over a groundbreaking for State Water Project pumps that would lift water over the Tehachapis, helping quench the thirst of a booming Southern California.

"There are members of the Eastern press who are always sharpening their pencils to write about all the oddball things we do in California," Reagan said. "Well, I hope they've got their pencils sharpened to write about what we're doing here today. We're moving more water in a man-made project than anyone has ever done, farther, and moving all of it uphill."

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A version of this article appeared in print on April 10, 2016, in the News section of the Los Angeles Times with the headline "Water plan infuriates growers - A wet March had raised the hopes of farmers denied their usual allotment of federal water. - CALIFORNIA JOURNAL" — Today's paperToday's paper | Subscribe
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