As California’s drought worsens, the Biden administration cuts water supplies

The impacts of California’s deepening drought hit home for Central Valley farmers earlier this week, when federal officials announced they didn’t have enough water to supply many of their agricultural customers. Urban users south of San Francisco in Santa Clara County saw their normal water deliveries cut in half.

California ships water to cities and farms through a combination of state and federal programs that oversee a complex network of hundreds of miles of dams, reservoirs and aqueducts throughout the state.

Farmers in the state’s richest agricultural valley have long relied on water from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s massive Central Valley Project (CVP) for irrigation, especially in the drier southern reaches of the valley. The CVP stretches some 400 miles from the Trinity Dam, about 125 miles south of the Oregon border, to Bakersfield in the southern San Joaquin Valley. The bureau manages 9 million acre-feet of water—imagine roughly 9 million football fields covered with a foot of water—most of which is used to irrigate about a third of the state’s farmland.

Bureau of Reclamation officials determine water allocations based on estimates of how much is available for deliveries, which in turn depends on current reservoir levels, as well as precipitation and the Sierra Nevada snowpack that replenishes rivers with meltwater. Snowpack accounts for nearly a third of the state’s water supply.

Federal officials had set initial water allocations in February, when they noted that a few heavy rainstorms failed to make up for two extremely dry winters in a row. Making matters worse, snowpack had reached little more than 50 percent of the seasonal average. At that time, farmers were allotted 5 percent of their contracted water supplies. In March, the bureau froze deliveries to farmers south of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta “until further notice,” citing ongoing dry conditions.

Now, the bureau has cut allocations for farmers both south and north of the delta to zero. The latest cuts come as the state grapples with the driest year in more than four decades for the Sacramento-San Joaquin Basin, the hub of the state’s water supply.

“The drought is turning out to be even more severe than people were anticipating a month or two ago because this spring was really dry,” said Ellen Hanak, vice president and director of the Public Policy Institute of California’s Water Policy Center.

“Usually, you get a bit of help with some late spring storms, and we didn’t,” Hanak said. “Plus, it’s been dry and warm, so the snowpack just kind of disappeared.”

Floodwater harvesting illustration

Some agricultural contractors, in the Sacramento and San Joaquin valleys, are not affected by the bureau’s cuts, because they already had water rights before the federal government constructed the CVP in the 1930s.

“In order for the CVP to build the infrastructure and develop the projects, they made special arrangements with the people who had preexisting water rights,” Hanak said.

Those groups with the most senior water rights still have 75 percent of their contracted deliveries, she said.

Still, “agriculture is being hit really hard,” Hanak said. “The levels of deliveries are down pretty much to what they were at the height of the last drought.”

The Westlands Water District, which saw its water deliveries cut to zero three years into the historic 2012 to 2016 drought, faces the same situation now.

The district has long been at the center of battles over water between farmers and environmentalists, with conservative politicians often jumping in on the farmers’ side. President Donald Trump famously echoed a longstanding fish-versus-farmers trope last year, when he told Fox News that California was going to have to ration water. “You know why?” he said. “Because they send millions of gallons of water out to sea, out to the Pacific, because they want to take care of certain…

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