Less water for farmers, more energy needed to pump it

The Associated Press
Wednesday February 21, 2001

SAN FRANCISCO — A low snowpack in the Sierra Nevada and little rainfall so far this winter could mean less water this summer for farmers, who would have to pump more from wells to irrigate their crops. 

While more rain and snow are predicted, the generally dry weather could raise irrigation costs substantially for farmers as they use electric pumps to reach deeper into aquifers for water. 

“It’s kind of a double whammy,” said Frances Squire, public affairs officer for the Westlands Water District in Fresno. “They’ll be forced to pump more, which means they’ll be using more electricity, which means they’ll place more strain on the grid.” 

The strain will be even worse if there is less water to power the state’s hydroelectric plants, further reducing irrigation supplies, said Randy McFarland, spokesman for the Friant Water Users Authority and Kings River Authority in the Central Valley. 

“With the power crisis, if there’s less water available, there will be less water to generate electricity,” McFarland said. “It’ll cost a lot more to operate pumps.” 

The rainy season lasts from November to March. So far, precipitation is about a third below normal, according to the Department of Water Resources’ chief hydrologist, Maury Roos. 

While he does not expect this year to be as dry as previous drought years in California, one state estimate has the chances of getting average rainfall this year at about one in 15, Roos said. 

If the year continues to be very dry, the Department of Water Resources could consider setting up a water bank as it has in drought years, buying water from people willing to sell. But “if that happens, it will probably be too expensive for farmers,” Roos said. 

A combination of wet weather this past weekend, more power plants returning to service and a holiday weekend that lowered electricity demands resulted in the state entering the workweek with its best forecast for power in more than five weeks. 

The state had been in a Stage 3 alert for more than a month, with reserves falling or threatening to fall below 1.5 percent. The Stage 3 alert was downgraded over the weekend. 

“This was a good weekend. And the wet weather that will continue through the week is good news” for hydroelectric supplies, said Patrick Dorinson, spokesman for the California Independent System Operator, the keeper of the state’s grid. 

Kip Brundage, who farms 1,000 acres of alfalfa and oats in Gilroy in Santa Clara County, worries that there won’t be enough runoff from the mountains to replenish underground water supplies. That means he’ll have to pump harder to get water from his 35 wells. He already pays up to $25,000 a month to run them. 

“My gut feeling is we’re going to see a substantial increase, probably in the 30 to 40 percent range,” he said. “It’s going to be devastating.” 

For farmers facing higher bills, options include concentrating crops on fewer acres or letting land lie fallow. The Westlands Water District in the Central Valley, which has 540,000 acres needing irrigation, will likely get a fraction of the water its contract with the government says it is entitled to receive — enough to irrigate just 66,300 acres. 

“We’re looking at a variety of options,” Squire said. “We’re starting to discuss land retirement.” 

Jason Peltier, manager of the Central Valley Project Water Association, which supplies water to one-third of all the irrigated land in the state – about 3 million acres – said the water situation didn’t have to be so dire. 

The Central Valley Project has predicted that some farmers it serves will get as little as 15 percent of the water their contract says they can receive.  

The state water project, which supplies about 1 million acres in the San Joaquin Valley, is estimating an allocation of about 20 percent. 

“What I take from it is absolute proof that our water management infrastructure is broken,” Peltier said. “The water condition overall is not disastrous, but that forecast is.” 

Peltier blamed increasing federal restrictions on pumping, designed to protect fish. 

“We’ve had an incredible string of wet years — six of the wettest we’ve seen,” he said. “Now when we move toward something more normal, we have a disaster looming, because of the constraints on the projects.” 

But Mike Thabault, an assistant field supervisor for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Sacramento, disagreed. 

He said the service has an Environmental Water Account, which it uses to make sure there’s enough water if the service takes action to protect fish that could affect the amount of water available to users. 

“By far and away, environmental issues in the delta are not the only thing constraining water supply in California, and I don’t think it’s fair to characterize it that way,” he said. “I think we’ve done a tremendous amount of effort to insulate the water users from any additional effects from the environmental standards that have occurred.”