U.S. Opens Spigot for California Farms

by Jim Carlton
The Wall Street Journal
3/17/2010

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar announced a sharp increase in federal water supplies for California’s agricultural Central Valley, further easing drought concerns in a state where El Niño rains have raised the mountain snowpack after three severely dry years.

Mr. Salazar said water allocations from the Central Valley Project in California, a system of aqueducts and reservoirs managed by the federal Bureau of Reclamation primarily for farmers in the region, would be increased this year to between 25% and 50% of the maximum amount allowed under ideal circumstances, based on conservative forecasts by his agency. That’s up from a previous estimate of just 5% for the system’s junior users.

The increase is made possible, Mr. Salazar said, in part because winter rains have helped replenish the state’s biggest reservoir, Lake Shasta, which now stands at 81% of capacity, compared with 55% a year ago. A former Colorado farmer, Mr. Salazar said he moved up the announcement by a week or so “because people on the ground and farming need to have certainty.”

The increases were welcome news across the parched valley, but in particular among farmers south of the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, where water allocations have been cut to as low as zero the past two years, following drought and environmental restrictions to protect fish. Water allocations are crucial not just for irrigating crops, but as a basis upon which bankers determine the size of loans to farmers.

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