The State Water Project, which helps supply a majority of Californians, will make small deliveries this year, officials said Friday as they increased the system's allocation to 5% from the historic zero announced in January.
February and March storms in Northern California raised the levels of the state's two largest reservoirs enough to allow federal water managers to also significantly boost deliveries to wildlife refuges and irrigation districts with the most senior water rights in the Sacramento Valley.
"This is all a bit of good news in an otherwise very bleak water year," state water resources director Mark Cowin said.
The changes won't make much of a difference for most Californians. At 5%, the state allocation is still the lowest on record for urban agencies, which continue to emphasize the need for conservation.
"Metropolitan was fortunate to enter this drought with sizable water reserves," said Jeffrey Kightlinger, general manager of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, the state project's biggest customer. "But those reserves are slowly dropping. … Lowering demand is the one thing each and every one of us can do to ensure that our reserves will be sufficient to withstand a drought that has no end in sight."
The allocation for most growers supplied by the Central Valley Project remains at zero. Officials of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which operates the project, were not optimistic that would change. They did indicate, however, that the allocation for wildlife refuges and senior rights holders in the San Joaquin Valley, now at 40%, might go up a bit.
California growers are expected to idle at least 500,000 acres of cropland this year for lack of irrigation. But the majority of the state's roughly 8 million acres of irrigated farmland will still be planted.
Farmers are pumping groundwater, buying water from districts with senior rights and, in some cases, have supplies left from last year. The huge Imperial Irrigation District in southeast California is also getting its normal deliveries from the Colorado River.
In the Sacramento Valley, deliveries will be timed to improve conditions for spawning winter-run Chinook salmon, which are facing dangerously warm river temperatures because of the drought.
The valley's senior rights holders, known as the Settlement Contractors, have agreed to delay many of their plantings — and thus their Sacramento River diversions — until after May 1. That will allow the reclamation bureau to hold more cold water behind upstream Shasta Dam and release it for the growers when the salmon most need it.
"The Sacramento River Settlement Contractors have made a significant contribution to conserving winter-run Chinook salmon," said Maria Rea, assistant regional administrator of National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries.
The group, which had been facing a record low allocation of 40%, will now get 75% of its usual supply, as will Sacramento Valley wildlife refuges.
Fish and wildlife officials said it was particularly important that the refuges receive water this year because wet conditions in Canada are expected to produce a bumper crop of waterfowl that will head to the Central Valley for the winter.