State and federal water contractors say they will deliver from 30 percent to 75 percent of contracted agricultural and municipal water supplies this season.

That is not bad, considering how dry this winter has been. Rain and snowpack runoff is expected well below average, unless there is another wet “March miracle.”

Although most farmers will get from only 30 percent to 50 percent of contracted supplies, irrigated fields are not as dry as would be expected with the dry winter. There were grower allocated water supplies left over from the 2011 growing season, which was a lower water use, mild growing season punctuated by one of the largest runoff years to fill reservoirs in recent times. This leftover water has been applied as pre-season irrigations to open ground, orchards and vineyards throughout the winter. Soil water profiles should be well-filled for the start of the season in most areas.

Because it has been so dry, the California Department of Water Resources (DWR) has reduced its estimate of the amount of water the State Water Project will deliver this year.

DWR dropped its projected delivery allocation, from 60 percent to 50 percent of the requested amount of slightly more than 4 million acre-feet.

The Bureau of Reclamation’s initial 2012 water supply allocation for Central Valley Project (CVP) is as follows:

  • Agricultural water service contractor’s North- and South-of-Delta are allocated 30 percent of their contract supply of 443,000 acre-feet and 1.965 million acre-feet respectively.
  • Municipal and industrial water service contractors North- and South-of-Delta are both allocated 75 percent of their contract supply. This allocation is a percentage of historic use and may be adjusted to meet public health and safety needs.
  • Sacramento River Settlement Contractors and San Joaquin River Exchange and Settlement Contractors, who receive their CVP water supply based upon pre-CVP held water rights and is tied to pre-established Shasta inflow criteria, are allocated 75 percent of their contract supply of 2.2 million acre-feet and 875,000 acre-feet respectively.
  • Wildlife refuges North- and South-of-Delta, whose allocations are also based upon pre-established Shasta inflow criteria, are allocated 75 percent of their contract supply of 422,000 acre-feet.
  • Friant Division contractors’ water supply is delivered from Millerton Reservoir on the upper San Joaquin River. The first 800,000 acre-feet of water supply is considered Class 1; any remaining water is considered Class 2. Based upon DWR’s February 2012 Runoff Forecast, the Friant Division water supply allocation is 35 percent of Class 1 and zero percent of the contracted supply of 1.4 million acre-feet of Class 2.
  • Eastside water service contractors (Central San Joaquin Water Conservancy District and Stockton East Water District) whose water supplies are delivered from New Melones Reservoir on the Stanislaus River, are allocated their full contract supply of 155,000 acre-feet.

Stubbornly dry conditions

“Stubbornly dry conditions this winter give us no choice but to roll back our water supply estimate,” said DWR Director Mark Cowin. “We continue to hope, however, that wetter conditions in the remaining winter weeks will allow us to boost deliveries back up.”

Bureau of Reclamation Mid-Pacific Regional Director Don Glaser stated, “Hydrologically, 2012 is shaping up to be a challenging year. December — traditionally one of our wettest months — ended up being one of the driest on record and this pattern continues today. The good news is that we started the water year with exceptional carryover storage — 9.3 million acre-feet — and storage in our reservoirs now stands at 103 percent of the 15-year average. This storage is the foundation for this initial allocation, and with almost two months remaining in California’s rain season, we continue to hope for improved precipitation.”

Precipitation so far this winter has been only about half of normal and the mountain snowpack is less than a third of normal.

Runoff from rain and snow is forecasted to be far below average in both the Sacramento River and San Joaquin River systems. The median runoff forecast of 9.4 million acre-feet for the Sacramento River system would be the 16th driest in 106 years. The Feb. 1 median water year runoff forecast of 3.2 million acre-feet for the San Joaquin River system would be the 21st driest in 111 years. Average runoff is 18.3 million acre-feet for the Sacramento system, and 5.9 million acre-feet for the San Joaquin.

DWR’s eight precipitation gauges covering the mountainous country from Shasta Lake in the north to the American River basin recorded an impressive 130 percent of average rainfall and snow in October, but only 43 percent in November, 4 percent of average in December, 84 percent of average in January, and 18 percent of a normal February total to date. This eight-station area is at 51 percent of its seasonal precipitation average. Records go back to 1920.

Similarly, precipitation gages in the San Joaquin basin recorded 125 percent of the average monthly precipitation for October, 32 percent for November, zero percent for December, 80 percent for January, and 20 percent of a normal February to date. This San Joaquin five-station index is at 47 percent of its seasonal average. San Joaquin Basin records go back to 1904.

Initial State Water Project allocations have seldom been reduced. Previous times were in 2001 (from 40 percent to a final allocation of 39 percent of requests); 1991(85 percent to 30 percent), and 1977 (100 percent to 90 percent). In 2000, the initial Allocation of 50 percent was increased to 100 percent, but finally dropped to 90 percent.

Carryover reservoir storage from last winter remains high (110 percent of normal), but a high pressure ridge this winter has diverted most storms to the north of California.

The Sierra snowpack statewide snowpack is only 30 percent of normal, a mere 25 percent of the average April 1 measurement, when the snowpack is normally at its peak before the spring runoff. Mountain snow runoff normally provides approximately one-third of the water used in California.

The large differences in snowfall totals in the 2010-2011 snow season and thus far this season, demonstrate the variability that is possible in California’s precipitation and water storage. Models of California’s future climate indicate that rain and snowfall is likely to become even less predictable. This variability makes it critically important that California continue to invest in water conservation and water recycling, as well as improve the flexibility and adaptability of our statewide water systems.

It is still possible — though statistically unlikely — that late-season storms could salvage the water year, similar to the “Miracle March” of 1991, which recorded three times that month’s average precipitation at the conclusion of an otherwise desperately dry winter in the fifth year of a drought. The 50 percent State Water Project allocation announced today is not severely low. Last year, an unusually wet year, the final allocation was 80 percent of the slightly more than 4 million acre-feet requested by the 29 public agencies that distribute SWP water to more than 25 million Californians and nearly a million acres of irrigated farmland. The final allocation was 50 percent in 2010, 40 percent in 2009, 35 percent in 2008, and 60 percent in 2007. The last 100 percent allocation — difficult to achieve even in wet years because of fishery agency restrictions on Delta pumping to protect threatened and endangered fish — was in 2006.