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California farms given good news as reservoirs fill and snowpack builds

San Francisco Chronicle logo San Francisco Chronicle 3/1/2017 By Kurtis Alexander
A state park ranger patrols near the San Luis Reservoir dam in Gustine, Calif. on Tuesday, Feb. 28, 2017. The federal Bureau of Reclamation announced water allocations for the Central Valley on Tuesday. © Paul Chinn, The Chronicle A state park ranger patrols near the San Luis Reservoir dam in Gustine, Calif. on Tuesday, Feb. 28, 2017. The federal Bureau of Reclamation announced water allocations for the Central Valley on Tuesday.

The extraordinary turnaround in California’s water picture is becoming a windfall for farm country.

Federal officials announced Tuesday that the 20 reservoirs that make up the Central Valley Project are so swollen with winter runoff that many growers will get all the water they requested this year — a remarkable change from the past few years when countless orchards and fields received no federal water at all.

The San Luis Reservoir is at nearly 100 percent capacity in Gustine, Calif. on Tuesday, Feb. 28, 2017. The federal Bureau of Reclamation announced water allocations for the Central Valley on Tuesday. © Paul Chinn, The Chronicle The San Luis Reservoir is at nearly 100 percent capacity in Gustine, Calif. on Tuesday, Feb. 28, 2017. The federal Bureau of Reclamation announced water allocations for the Central Valley on Tuesday.

The projected bump, which comes alongside similar increases expected at state-run reservoirs, is certain to benefit California’s $47 billion agricultural sector, a normally booming breadbasket that has seen land dry up and crop yields slip as water turned scarce.

A fisherman is parked above the San Luis Reservoir in Gustine, Calif. on Tuesday, Feb. 28, 2017. The federal Bureau of Reclamation announced water allocations for the Central Valley on Tuesday. © Paul Chinn, The Chronicle A fisherman is parked above the San Luis Reservoir in Gustine, Calif. on Tuesday, Feb. 28, 2017. The federal Bureau of Reclamation announced water allocations for the Central Valley on Tuesday. The San Luis Reservoir is at nearly100 percent capacity in Gustine, Calif. on Tuesday, Feb. 28, 2017. To the right is the O'Neill Forebay. The federal Bureau of Reclamation announced water allocations for the Central Valley on Tuesday. © Paul Chinn, The Chronicle The San Luis Reservoir is at nearly100 percent capacity in Gustine, Calif. on Tuesday, Feb. 28, 2017. To the right is the O'Neill Forebay. The federal Bureau of Reclamation announced water allocations for the Central Valley on Tuesday.

“After the historic five-year drought, the snowpack and rain are a tremendous blessing to an agricultural industry hammered by the critical water shortage,” said Ryan Jacobsen, chief executive of the Fresno County Farm Bureau.

While the news was generally good, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation — which runs what is considered the nation’s largest network of dams, lakes and canals — did not extend the full water allocation to all of its customers. In some cases, the agency says it’s still too early to know just how far supplies will stretch.

A state park ranger patrols on the dam of the San Luis Reservoir in Gustine, Calif. on Tuesday, Feb. 28, 2017. The federal Bureau of Reclamation announced water allocations for the Central Valley on Tuesday. © Paul Chinn, The Chronicle A state park ranger patrols on the dam of the San Luis Reservoir in Gustine, Calif. on Tuesday, Feb. 28, 2017. The federal Bureau of Reclamation announced water allocations for the Central Valley on Tuesday.

Many of those left in the dark, which include the sprawling farms in the western San Joaquin Valley as well as two urban water agencies in the Bay Area, were disappointed that the generous water commitments did not come their way.

“We’re just furious,” said Jason Peltier, executive director for the San Luis & Delta-Mendota Water Authority, which receives federal supplies to deliver to growers along Interstate 5 near Los Banos (Merced County). “A year ago, we could understand the delayed allocation. There wasn’t a lot of water to work with. The reality this year is entirely different.”

Like many California households and businesses, the farms that supply a third of the nation’s vegetables and two-thirds of its nuts and fruits were forced to make big changes during the drought.

As reservoir supplies dwindled, many growers fallowed fields and grew less food. Between the 2014 and 2015 crop years, the most intense period of the drought, California agricultural revenue dropped 17 percent, according to state figures.

So many farmers turned to groundwater, and dug so deep to find fresh supplies, that overpumping caused large swaths of the the Central Valley to sink several inches.

Rick Eldridge stops on his way to Los Banos to snap photos of San Luis Reservoir, which is close to full capacity, in Gustine, Calif. on Tuesday, Feb. 28, 2017. The federal Bureau of Reclamation announced water allocations for the Central Valley on Tuesday. © Paul Chinn, The Chronicle Rick Eldridge stops on his way to Los Banos to snap photos of San Luis Reservoir, which is close to full capacity, in Gustine, Calif. on Tuesday, Feb. 28, 2017. The federal Bureau of Reclamation announced water allocations for the Central Valley on Tuesday.

California’s portfolio of crops changed, too. With water prices surging, farmers turned to high-value goods like pistachios and almonds, which were often shipped overseas to fetch greater profits.

Sunlight sparkles on the surface of San Luis Reservoir which is at near capacity in Gustine, Calif. on Tuesday, Feb. 28, 2017. The federal Bureau of Reclamation announced water allocations for the Central Valley on Tuesday. © Paul Chinn, The Chronicle Sunlight sparkles on the surface of San Luis Reservoir which is at near capacity in Gustine, Calif. on Tuesday, Feb. 28, 2017. The federal Bureau of Reclamation announced water allocations for the Central Valley on Tuesday. Motorists on Highway 152 drive past the spillway of the San Luis Reservoir in Gustine, Calif. on Tuesday, Feb. 28, 2017. The federal Bureau of Reclamation announced water allocations for the Central Valley on Tuesday. © Paul Chinn, The Chronicle Motorists on Highway 152 drive past the spillway of the San Luis Reservoir in Gustine, Calif. on Tuesday, Feb. 28, 2017. The federal Bureau of Reclamation announced water allocations for the Central Valley on Tuesday.

Lower-value crops, like rice, alfalfa and tomatoes used for canned goods, became less popular. In some cases, that had repercussions. The state’s cattle industry, for example, had to deal with higher feed prices because hay became harder to find.

“You don’t yank the water off the fancy wine grapes or the carrots,” explained Daniel Sumner, an agricultural economist at UC Davis. “You yank the water off the things we can get someplace else.”

Central Valley Project customers who have not yet been notified of this year’s water allocation may be wary, but they know they’ll be better off than they were in the past five years.

Federal officials said there’s currently 900,000 acre-feet of water in the San Luis Reservoir in Merced County to send to those south of the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta who haven’t been told how much water they’ll get. An acre-foot is the amount needed to cover an acre with a foot of water — enough to supply one or two households for a year.

The available supply is well over the 5 percent allocation that these customers got last year — following no allocation at all the prior two years.

Sunlight sparkles on the surface of San Luis Reservoir which is at near capacity in Gustine, Calif. on Tuesday, Feb. 28, 2017. The federal Bureau of Reclamation announced water allocations for the Central Valley on Tuesday. © Paul Chinn, The Chronicle Sunlight sparkles on the surface of San Luis Reservoir which is at near capacity in Gustine, Calif. on Tuesday, Feb. 28, 2017. The federal Bureau of Reclamation announced water allocations for the Central Valley on Tuesday. Waterfowl swim in San Luis Reservoir, which is close to capacity, in Gustine, Calif. on Tuesday, Feb. 28, 2017. The federal Bureau of Reclamation announced water allocations for the Central Valley on Tuesday. © Paul Chinn, The Chronicle Waterfowl swim in San Luis Reservoir, which is close to capacity, in Gustine, Calif. on Tuesday, Feb. 28, 2017. The federal Bureau of Reclamation announced water allocations for the Central Valley on Tuesday.

Central Valley Project contractors near the American River, Millerton Lake and New Melones Reservoir were given a 100 percent projected allocation. So were the longtime customers across the state known as “settlement contractors” who have historic claims on federal water.

© Hearst Newspapers

The pecking order is determined by who has the most seniority. Many have not received a full delivery in years. The last time the system met 100 percent of the demand was 2006.

The Santa Clara Valley Water District and the Contra Costa Water District are among those that still don’t know how much federal water they’ll get. The initial allocation is usually made in February — to allow customers to plan ahead.

Federal officials said that while reservoirs are brimming, there are other factors that still need to be considered, including how runoff progresses in coming months as well as the needs of fish and wildlife in and along rivers.

The Bureau of Reclamation expects to announce the remainder of the allocations by late March.

Rick Eldridge (left) and his brother Marc stop on their way to Los Banos to view San Luis Reservoir, which is close to full capacity, in Gustine, Calif. on Tuesday, Feb. 28, 2017. The federal Bureau of Reclamation announced water allocations for the Central Valley on Tuesday. © Paul Chinn, The Chronicle Rick Eldridge (left) and his brother Marc stop on their way to Los Banos to view San Luis Reservoir, which is close to full capacity, in Gustine, Calif. on Tuesday, Feb. 28, 2017. The federal Bureau of Reclamation announced water allocations for the Central Valley on Tuesday. Marc Eldridge stops on his way to Los Banos to view San Luis Reservoir, which is close to full capacity, in Gustine, Calif. on Tuesday, Feb. 28, 2017. The federal Bureau of Reclamation announced water allocations for the Central Valley on Tuesday. © Paul Chinn, The Chronicle Marc Eldridge stops on his way to Los Banos to view San Luis Reservoir, which is close to full capacity, in Gustine, Calif. on Tuesday, Feb. 28, 2017. The federal Bureau of Reclamation announced water allocations for the Central Valley on Tuesday.

While taking a cautious approach, federal officials said conditions look good for those who haven’t been notified of their water allowance. In the meantime, they say, these customers will be able to obtain all the water they need because of the current bounty.

The teeming reservoirs in the Central Valley Project are the product of this winter’s exceptional run of storms. The rain and snow in the mountains has sent unprecedented amounts of water downriver.

Sunlight sparkles on the surface of San Luis Reservoir which is at near capacity in Gustine, Calif. on Tuesday, Feb. 28, 2017. The federal Bureau of Reclamation announced water allocations for the Central Valley on Tuesday.

Sunlight sparkles on the surface of San Luis Reservoir which is at near capacity in Gustine, Calif. on Tuesday, Feb. 28, 2017. The federal Bureau of Reclamation announced water allocations for the Central Valley on Tuesday.
© Paul Chinn, The Chronicle

State officials are scheduled to take their monthly manual snow measurements in the Sierra on Wednesday, a largely symbolic exercise that is expected to document near-record snow. On Tuesday, computer sensors showed that statewide snowpack measured at 186 percent of average for the date.

A state park ranger patrols on the dam above the spillway of the San Luis Reservoir in Gustine, Calif. on Tuesday, Feb. 28, 2017. The federal Bureau of Reclamation announced water allocations for the Central Valley on Tuesday. © Paul Chinn, The Chronicle A state park ranger patrols on the dam above the spillway of the San Luis Reservoir in Gustine, Calif. on Tuesday, Feb. 28, 2017. The federal Bureau of Reclamation announced water allocations for the Central Valley on Tuesday.

The Central Valley Project, launched in 1933, consists of 20 dams and reservoirs, including Lake Shasta, the state’s largest. The system’s 500 miles of canals and aqueducts deliver water across 35 counties.

A state park ranger patrols on the dam above the spillway of the San Luis Reservoir in Gustine, Calif. on Tuesday, Feb. 28, 2017. The federal Bureau of Reclamation announced water allocations for the Central Valley on Tuesday. © Paul Chinn, The Chronicle A state park ranger patrols on the dam above the spillway of the San Luis Reservoir in Gustine, Calif. on Tuesday, Feb. 28, 2017. The federal Bureau of Reclamation announced water allocations for the Central Valley on Tuesday.

As California’s biggest water supplier, the project provides for about a third of the state’s irrigated farmland as well as nearly 1 million households.

Kurtis Alexander is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: kalexander@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @kurtisalexander

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