Agriculture

Calif. zeroes out water allocation for Valley farmers, will only deliver minimum supplies to cities

California water regulators will be delivering the bare minimum of water supplies to the state’s municipalities via the State Water Project, the Department of Water Resources announced to water users on Wednesday.

For Valley farmers, who hoped for an ounce of good news related to water supplies heading into 2022, they will see a zero-percent water allocation from state water agencies to start the year.

It’s the first time in the history of the State Water Project for officials to kick off a water year with a zero initial allocation.

The shift for agricultural water users is a jarring sign of drought-era policymaking.

Last December, California water officials announced a 10 percent initial water allocation for all water users to start 2021. They eventually slashed the share to 5 percent in March before zeroing it out in May.

Unlike Federal water contractors, who largely pay for water supplies they receive, California’s state water contractors are required to pay 100 percent of their contract value regardless of the annual allocation.

In 2021, state water users in the southern San Joaquin Valley saw their water rates jump between 13 and 18 percent despite not receiving a single acre-foot of new water.

To start 2022, California water regulators will be releasing supplies to help municipal water users “meet their outstanding minimum health and safety demands,” known as a health and safety allocation.

This allocation of water equates to 55 gallons of water per person per day.

“If a Contractor’s undelivered [State Water Project] water (e.g., SWP water stored outside of the Contractor’s service area…) can be utilized to meet all or a portion of the Contractor’s minimum health and safety needs, such water shall be used as available,” the memo to water users reads.

During a briefing with reporters on Wednesday, DWR chief Karla Nemeth said that conditions could worsen still for California residents.

“If conditions continue to be this dry, we will see mandatory cutbacks,” she said of urban water users.

South Valley communities remain in peril

The announcement that California will only deliver sufficient water to meet health and safety minimums is unlikely to allay concerns in communities like Kettleman City.

The southern Kings County community, a popular stopover at the intersection of Interstate 5 and Highway 41, has become a hydrologic canary in the coal mine for Valley water users.

In early October, the unincorporated town’s water provider began warning state water officials that it could run out of its stored water by the end of December.

Along with flagging the potential for the town to run dry, they noted that health and safety minimums left Kettleman City’s robust commercial district without water – a shortfall of roughly 214 acre feet of water.

A few weeks after their initial plea, Department of Water Resources chief Nemeth rebuffed the request.

Alex Tavlian is the Executive Editor of The San Joaquin Valley Sun and Executive Director of Valley Future Foundation. You can reach Alex at alex.tavlian@sjvsun.com.