In a dry year such as this one, connecting willing sellers of surplus water with possible buyers can be an important source for farmers facing water shortages. But water managers who have initiated water transfers say the process requires them to negotiate a bureaucratic maze, with no guarantees a drop will ever reach a thirsty crop.
Thad Bettner, Glenn-Colusa Irrigation District (GCID) general manager, termed efforts to transfer water to farmers south of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta “exhausting.”
“We have to meet a lot of requirements,” Bettner says. “We’re a pre-1914 water-right holder so we don’t benefit from certain exemptions, like not having to prepare new CEQA (California Environmental Quality Act) documents.”
GCID farmers are able to transfer a “small amount” of water this year, about 5,000 acre-feet, Bettner says, but to do so the district will have to complete all the environmental documents – again. To complicate matters, the district’s water right also is affected by Sacramento River settlement contractor agreements, negotiated in the 1960s when the federal Central Valley Project was built.
“We also have to get approval from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which requires a NEPA (National Environ-mental Policy Act) document, another environmental assessment for the transfer,” Bettner says. “We have to meet local, state and federal requirements and additional guidelines before we can transfer water, meaning at least three levels of approval we have to go through.”
Because of complexities and costs, some irrigation districts don’t even try to transfer water. That can lead to frustrations among potential buyers.
In western Fresno County, farmer Marvin Meyers says farmers “are desperately looking for any water they can find” to supplement a 20 percent allocation from the CVP.
“I have heard of water going from $400 to $700 an acre-foot, and that is if you can even find it,” Meyers says. “Everyone is out bird-dogging for water.”
Meyers says water transfers could help San Joaquin Valley farmers make it through this crop year “by the skin of our teeth.”
“And that’s the big problem – transfers,” he says. “We’ve been addressing transfers for years, trying to get the Department of Water Resources to create a template that will facilitate them. It’s so difficult to get a transfer through the regulatory agencies. We have had it where we ask for a transfer at the beginning of the year from district to district and by the time it’s approved, we are done. The season is over.”
Even in average rainfall years, regulatory constraints mean that south-of-delta water users will continue to cope with reduced supplies, says Frances Mizuno of the San Luis-Delta Mendota Water Authority.
“With a long-term average water supply of about 45 percent for ag service contractors, there will always be a need for supplemental water supplies to meet demands,” Mizuno says. “Groundwater pumping and water transfers are the primary sources of supplemental supplies.”
The biggest challenge facing south-of-delta water contractors is cost and the ability to transfer the water at the delta pumps, she says, adding that “transferring water from the north to those who need it in the south comes at a high price per acre-foot,” and there’s an additional “carriage loss” associated with moving water during the summer that can reduce deliveries by as much as 30 percent – if there’s even available capacity at the pumps.
“We need to have in place long-term, programmatic environmental documents that include a cumulative effects analysis for water transfers,” Mizuno says.
“The current biological opinions for operating the delta pumps for winter-run salmon and delta smelt restrict pumping of transfer water to the period of July to September. If the biological opinion can be changed to expand the window for pumping of transfer water to include the months of June and/or October, this would allow for more capacity to move water south.”
Kate Campbell is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.