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Water transfers helped farmers survive this year. Now, all eyes are on the coming water year

jesse-aqueduct-1

The California Aqueduct carries water from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta south to 25 million Californians. This view is about 20 miles west of Firebaugh in western Fresno County.

Water transfers, trades and sales doubled this year as drought left San Joaquin Valley farmers scrambling for supplies.

“This has been kind of an exceptional year for transfers,” said Sam Boland-Brien, program manager at the State Water Resources Control Board’s Division of Water Rights. Boland-Brien said he’s seen about twice the amount of transfers this year compared to an average water year.

Surface supplies were slashed to 5 percent of contracted amounts for State Water Project contractors and many federal Central Valley Project contractors.

Transfers typically take 30 days for approval, Boland-Brien said.

But the 2021 drought proclamation shortened the comment period to 15 days, making the whole approval process just 45 days long and moving it entirely online.

For water districts and agencies, the lack of surface water has been expensive and fueled more groundwater pumping.

Westlands Water District covers western portions of Fresno and Kings counties. It provides federal Central Valley Project water largely to agriculture. The District was hit hard by the lack of federal surface water.

There are no numbers yet on how many acres in the district were fallowed, wrote Shelley Cartwright, deputy general manager of external affairs for Westlands, in an email. But from March to May, an estimated 172,000 acre-feet of groundwater was pumped, she added. The district estimates that about 570,000 acre-feet of groundwater will be pumped this year in total and that it will purchase 135,000 acre-feet of supplemental water, although those purchases aren’t finalized yet, wrote Cartwright.

The San Luis & Delta-Mendota Water Authority has also been hit hard. The Authority consists of 27 member agencies and provides water to 1.2 million acres of farmland in the San Joaquin Valley.

“Everybody’s pretty much in a dire situation,” said Frances Mizuno, special projects coordinator for the Authority.

The Authority and its member agencies have had to work to fill the gap of missing surface water this year. It purchased close to 200,000 acre-feet from contractors and districts in northern California. The water is expensive at about $1,000 per acre-foot. It’s mostly for permanent tree crops.

Even after some of the transfers were completed, the water didn’t move down to the valley. Some of the water had to be held in Shasta Dam to maintain cold water temperatures. Those transfers are just now starting to move.

Because the water is coming so late in the season, Mizuno thinks many agencies will probably store the water in San Luis Reservoir so they have something to start with next year. Still, the transfers were crucial, said Mizuno.

“It’s make or break for many individual farmers,” said Mizuno. “Every single drop of water this year was critical, not only for this year but also for next year.”

If the drought stretches on through next year, relying on transfers might not be as much of a safety net anymore, said Mizuno. Groundwater substitution transfers, for example, might not be an option next year because the aquifers will need to recover from this year’s overpumping, she said. Groundwater substitution transfers occur when a seller pumps groundwater instead of using their surface water and then sells the surface water instead.

“Another dry year is going to be very difficult,” said Mizuno. “I don’t have any answers. We just pray for a wet season.”

Jesse Vad is the reporting intern at SJV Water, a nonprofit, independent online news publication dedicated to covering water issues in the San Joaquin Valley. Lois Henry, SJV Water’s CEO and editor, can be reached at lois.henry@sjvwater.org. The website is sjvwater.org.