Deal to send rice water to SoCal could dry up before summer

Rice Fields, Tuesday, July 15, 2014.  Photo Brian BaerThe Sacramento Bee recently reported it’s a done deal to transfer water from Central Valley rice farmers to Southern California. The transfer would alleviate curtailments of urban water allocations.

But if California does not provide the full allocation to the owners of what are called “senior water rights,” the transfers are unlikely to happen.

Explaining water rights in a general context, according to Jay Lund, water resources professor at the University of California, Davis, “If you’re a senior water right holder, you’re the last to be shorted. So, all the junior water right holders that are junior to you will lose all of their water before you lose a drop.”

On March 10 the Board of Directors of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California authorized $71 million to secure 70,000 acre-feet of additional raw water supplies via the water market for 2015. However, on March 11, the Chico Enterprise-Record reported rice farmers with senior water rights were predisposed to not transfer water to MWD if their state water allocation this year is cut.

Then on March 14, the Enterprise-Record reported the water transfer would involve a total of 115,000 acre-feet of water from Central Valley rice farmers to Southern California. The Kern County Water Agency would get about 35,600 acre-feet of water.

An acre-foot of water serves about two urban households or about one-third of an acre of farmland per year.

Ted Trimble, manager of the Western Canal Water District, told the newspaper it looked like his district would see cuts.  The deciding factor: If the flows of water into Lake Oroville are below the contract threshold, then his district can receive only half of its water.

The March 1 state water forecast tentatively indicated Western would barely meet the threshold for water supply, said Trimble.

Reservoir inflow

Lake Oroville has increased its historic average capacity from 53 percent in mid-December 2014 to 70 percent as of March 2, 2015. But reservoir inflow has dropped from 5,031 cubic feet of water per second on Feb. 15 to 1,719 CFS on March 12, indicating a slowing of inflow.

Marta Weissman, Director of Research for Statecon, Inc. water economists and consultants, said in an email to the forecasted Federal Central Valley Project water allocation is zero percent to 25 percent.  “If dry conditions persist, CVP contractors whose water supply is based on senior water rights may also see a reduction,” she said.

The Upper Feather River Watershed supplies 3.2 million acre-feet of water per year on average for downstream users, with an average daily flow into Lake Oroville of 5,310 cubic feet per second. In 1997 the inflow to Lake Oroville reached 300,000 cubic feet per second during a storm.

Furthermore, the state water forecast assumes “normal hydrology” of rain until April. As of March 5, 2015, the NOAA Climate Prediction Center is forecasting only a 50 percent to 60 percent chance that favorable but weak El Nino conditions will continue, but could not predict exactly where in the Northern Hemisphere.

The bigger question: Will state and federal water allocations be cut to rice farmers resulting in aborted water sales?

Will farm water allocations be cut?

Water economist Rodney T. Smith, Ph.D., president of Stratecon, Inc. has devised a statistical model posted on his Hydro Wonk website on Feb. 18 that explained about 75 percent of the annual variation in Final State Water Project Allocations. He found that, the more water storage at Lake Oroville at the start of the water year on Oct. 1, and the greater the amount of Northern Sierra rainfall, the higher the allocation of state water for farms and cities.

Smith’s prediction reported Lake Oroville currently has the lowest volume of water since 1990. His 2015 precipitation forecast is better than last year, but still not enough to make up for prior-year shortfalls.

Smith predicted a state water allocation of 21 percent for 2015 for farmers with junior water rights.

There has been much public criticism of rice farmers with century-old senior water rights on the Feather, Sacramento and Yuba Rivers. However, it is those water rights that serve as an unofficial water bank during protracted deep droughts.

In 2014, Western Central Valley farmers with junior water rights had their allocations cut 25 percent, mainly for fish but also to rescue farms with permanent crops such as almonds, walnuts, olives and grapes that cannot be fallowed. MWD bought Central Valley farm water in 1991 and again in 2008.

Overdrafted water

A water transfer between rice farmers and MWD would involve a voluntary transfer of State Water Project water to MWD for urban use and would not tap groundwater.

The main groundwater basin in the Oroville watershed is the Sierra Valley Groundwater Management District, which has a storage capacity of 7.5 million acre-feet of water at a depth of 1,000 feet.

The SVGWMD has been a managed groundwater basin under state law since 1980 and is not listed as a groundwater basin subject to critical conditions of overdraft, as described in the book, “Who Should Be Allowed to Sell Water in California,” by Ellen Hanak, p. 144.

So MWD would not be buying water from an “unmanaged” or over-drafted aquifer.

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