January 30, 2014

Westside Issue Turns Up Heat On Federal Agency

By Seth Nidever, Hanford Sentinel

The explosive issue of water is on the verge of sparking a major battle between Westside growers and the federal Bureau of Reclamation.

The issue involves Central Valley Project “rescheduled” water that growers banked in San Luis Reservoir during wet years for use during dry years.


Water flows through the California aqueduct near Kettleman City.
(Sentinel file photo)

Severe drought is prompting farmers to ask the Bureau to release the water from what’s left in the shrunken pool of San Luis Reservoir. Farmers built up the reserve by adopting conservation techniques such as drip irrigation systems.

The Bureau’s response is that it is discussing the possibility that farmers might not get it due to competing demands from a variety of other sources, including homes, businesses and the environment.

“If we don’t receive any [additional] precipitation, the water in the system is what we have to work with,” said Bureau spokesman Louis Moore. “We’re concerned with managing the system to meet all the demands that would be required of us.”

Moore declined to specify exactly where else the precious wet stuff might end up.

Irate Westside farmers say they have already paid for the water, were counting on it and were basing financial decisions on the assumption that they’d be able to access it.

“This would be the greatest heist of personal property ever perpetrated,” said grower Ted Sheely, who has 10,000 acres of cropland. “That is water I paid for. I’m really upset they’re even thinking about taking that water.”

Sheely said that the loss of the water would force him to fallow an additional 500 acres on top of the 2,000 he was planning to leave unfarmed.

Westlands Water District officials were tight-lipped, citing ongoing negotiations with the Bureau over the controversy.

“Currently, we’re in discussions with the [Bureau] and other interested parties with this important issue,” said Westlands spokeswoman Gayle Holman. “At this point, it’s our hope that this issue will be resolved in a couple of days.”

The angry reaction is getting the attention of elected officials across the board. Five lawmakers, including Sen. Dianne Feinstein and congressmen David Valadao, Devin Nunes, Jim Costaand Kevin McCarthy, fired off a letter Sunday asking for more clarity on the Bureau’s policy.

“While we recognize the incredibly dry conditions facing many CVP contractors, we strongly oppose the reallocation of any rescheduled water for any use other than its originally intended purpose as a reserve supply secured by contractors in anticipation of ongoing drought conditions,” the letter states. “We respectfully request that the Bureau provide clear guidance ... within the next week which provides assurances to those contractors due rescheduled water that those supplies will be fully available to them.”

A separate, Republican-only letter from Valadao, Nunes and McCarthythreatened a congressional investigation.

The bipartisan letter said growers “have spent approximately $150 million on water transfers in order to preserve an estimated 340,000 acre-feet of project water in San Luis Reservoir” as a drought reserve.

If every one of those growers called in their banked water, it would more than empty the 334,000 acre-feet that sit in the reservoir now.

A similar issue cropped up in the last major drought of 2007-2009, but the situation was less dire. The last 13 months have been the driest in recorded California history.

San Luis Reservoir is at 31 percent capacity — less than half of what it was at this time last year. Growers are expecting a 0 percent allocation from the CVP when the Bureau announces its allocation in late February.

The decision the Bureau makes on rescheduled water is threatening to toss a Molotov cocktail into an already dicey situation.

“It’s going to be a big battle,” said Kings County Supervisor Joe Neves.

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