More drought cutbacks for California farmers | The Sacramento Bee

In a potentially significant setback for the state’s fragile water system, California regulators have ordered a temporary curb in the flows being released from Lake Shasta in order to protect an endangered species of salmon.

The decision late last week by the State Water Resources Control Board upends a delicate compromise made weeks ago by environmental regulators, farmers and others as California struggles to cope with the fourth year of drought. For the next 10 days, water releases from Shasta will be lower than expected.

Farmers and others said the 10-day curbs won’t make a huge difference in their water supplies. But they expressed concern at a water board hearing Tuesday that the cutbacks could go deeper and last much longer, bringing significant harm to agriculture and even some municipalities.

“This is the part of the season that means the most for the crop,” said Chris White, general manager of the Central California Irrigation District, located south of the Delta. “Any further cuts, if they’re significant, (mean) jeopardy to our growers.”

Ron Milligan, operations manager for the federal government’s Central Valley Project, acknowledged that the cutbacks from Shasta could cost substantial turmoil in California’s water community. “There’s a lot of anxiety from a water supply standpoint,” Milligan said. “From Redding to Bakersfield, we’ve got a lot of people interested.”

Milligan said the effects could conceivably be felt in Folsom, Roseville and other Sacramento suburbs that rely on Folsom Lake. That’s because Folsom, which like Shasta is part of the CVP, could be called on to supply more water to the system to keep saltwater from the ocean from overwhelming the Delta area, he said.

Farmers already are making do with considerably less water than usual, and are fallowing several hundred thousand acres of land. Michael George, the state’s Delta “water master,” announced Tuesday that about 200 Delta farmers have opted into a voluntary program in which they’ll forego 25 percent of their water this season. George said many of them will simply fallow a quarter of their land.

The Shasta water situation could put more pressure on farmers around the state.

Simply put, farmers agreed weeks ago to leave much of their water in Shasta longer than usual in order to keep the lake cool enough for winter-run Chinook salmon to lay their eggs. But new temperature data last week showed that the waters of Shasta were running several degrees warmer than expected. It appeared certain that temperatures would exceed the 56 degree ceiling the fish eggs need.

The winter-run salmon are an endangered species, and “we have an obligation under the Endangered Species Act to do what we can,” Milligan said.

Advocates for the state’s salmon industry welcomed the decision. John McManus of the Golden Gate Salmon Association said the $1.4 billion-a-year industry lost the vast majority of its young fish last year and was fearing a repeat.

“What’s important is we don’t lose a second year,” he said.

Farm groups, however, said the salmon problems are creating enormous complications for them. Water districts south of the Delta, already facing a total cutoff of Central Valley Project deliveries this year, have negotiated significant purchases of water from Sacramento Valley farmers who have better supplies. But those deals, worth tens of millions of dollars, could be negated if the Sacramento Valley farmers don’t get as much water from Shasta as they were anticipating.

“Those adjustments (in Shasta flows) have grave impacts for our family farmers,” said Lon Martin, general manager of the San Luis Water District in Los Banos.

Separately, water board officials announced that urban Californians achieved 14 percent water conservation in April compared to 2013. That was considerably higher than the 3.6 percent conservation reported for March. But it’s well below the 25 percent demanded by Gov. Jerry Brown’s executive order, which took effect Monday.

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