Protecting and Promoting a Reliable Water Supply and a Healthy Environment 
July 9, 2021

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Friant Water Supply - Every Drop Counts
Millerton Lake behind Friant Dam near Fresno is less than half full in the summer of 2021, one of the driest years of record                             
Photo/Lewis Griswold  

The Takeaway:

  • Friant Division farmers are getting one-fifth of their normal Friant-Kern Canal water
  • Water managers still fear deliveries could be canceled if the dry year worsens
  • Groundwater is making up the shortfall

California rivers are running at near historic lows, but Friant Division farmers should receive enough water from the San Joaquin River to keep orchards and crops alive.

That’s because the San Joaquin River looks almost good compared to other rivers. It’s having its sixth worst year on record.

  • The Shasta River watershed that feeds the upper Sacramento River is having its driest year on record. 
  • The Kaweah River in Tulare Country is showing close to record low flows on par with 2015, the driest year of record.
  • The Feather River, the main source for the State Water Project, is having its third driest year on record.

Despite the low flows, the Bureau of Reclamation announced that Friant Division contractors would receive 20% of Class 1 water deliveries -- 160,000 acre-feet.

It’s enough to get by, farmers say.

“There’s nobody panicking yet,” said orange grower Edwin L. Wheaton, President of Terra Bella Irrigation District. “The district is fine if we do not go below 20%. If it gets cut at all, we’ll be hurting.”

The Bureau also announced that the Central Valley Project’s South of Delta deliveries (think Westlands Water District) would be 5%. But when Sacramento River flows worsened, the Bureau said South of Delta agricultural water “is not available until further notice.”

North of Delta deliveries to CVP contractors were suspended shortly thereafter. 

Yet the Bureau kept the Friant Division numbers unchanged at 20%.

Fergus Morrissey, General Manager of Orange Cove Irrigation District, said there’s just enough water in the San Joaquin to meet the needs of water rights holders downstream of Millerton Dam, to provide environmental flows for the San Joaquin River Restoration Project, and to supply water to Friant farmers via the Friant-Kern and Madera canals.

“Drought is somewhat local,” Morrissey said. “But it’s all very dry.”

Meanwhile, the ghost of 2014-15 -- that’s when the Bureau cut the allocation to zero for two straight years -- looms large. A resulting lawsuit is still in a federal court in Washington DC.

But water managers said they still worry that the Bureau of Reclamation will cut or even eliminate water deliveries in the Friant Division because it’s such a dry year. All eyes are on the San Joaquin River Exchange Contractors to see if they get the water they’re expecting.

If deliveries to the exchange contractors via the Delta-Mendota Canal fall short, they can claim a share of San Joaquin River water behind Millerton Dam -- water that Friant farmers claim under federal contract. 

That’s why Friant Water Authority sent a letter to the State Water Resources Control Board objecting to water being taken out of the Sacramento River by junior water rights holders who are not legally entitled to it in an extremely low-flow year such as this. 

Such diversions could cause exchange contractors to get less Delta water and cause the Bureau to cancel this year’s allocation to the Friant Division, the Authority said. It would be 2014-15 all over again. But will that happen?

“There is no doubt Reclamation is looking at this year different than the last drought,” said Dan Vink, South Valley Water Association Executive Director. “The conditions are similar, but the management of the exchange seems to be more consistent with the exchange and the contracts. Hopefully for the Friant farmers that results in them being able to continue to use the water developed under their contracts. Time will tell” 

Meanwhile, Friant Division water managers are using tried and true strategies to get through this dry year.

Orange Cove Irrigation District

Orange Cove Irrigation District is a small district of mostly citrus orchards. Some growers have groundwater, some do not. The district is using the following water supplies to survive the dry year:

-- The 20% allocation to the Friant Division

-- Carryover water behind Millerton Dam equal to 10% of the allocation

-- Groundwater. 

“Compared to everyone else, we’re doing good,” said General Manager Fergus Morrissey.

As in 2014-15, Orange Cove farmers are being allowed to pump groundwater into the district’s distribution system to sell to other farmers in the district but not outside the district, he said.

SGMA -- the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act -- is ramping up but it’s okay for Orange Cove farmers to pump because “we are not in overdraft,” Morrissey said.

It’s vital that the Bureau keep the 20% allocation because “there’s really no water to buy” if that water gets cut, Morrissey said.

One good sign: Orange Cove farmers are not removing orchards like some did in 2014-15.

“What’s concerning is the frequency of dry years in the last 20 years,” Morrissey said.

Terra Bella Irrigation District

Terra Bella Irrigation District is well known for having no uable groundwater, yet growers there have been producing citrus for decades. But this year’s 20% allocation can’t keep all the trees alive.

The secret to survival? When Terra Bella finds itself short of water, next door neighbor Lower Tule River Irrigation District shares its supply.

“It started as a handshake agreement,” said Edwin L. Wheaton, president of Terra Bella. “It’s worked for 55 years.”

The agreement helps both districts, he said: “In years where we are long they get some of our water. They’re getting more than we have gotten back.”

In the 2014 drought year, Terra Bella farmers bought water on the open market at very high prices, he said. A few farmers abandoned orchards, but that’s not happening this time around.

Stone Corral Irrigation District

Stone Corral Irrigation District in the citrus belt near Visalia has both the 20% allocation and water stored behind Friant Dam, for a total of 30%.

“If we do not cut the allocation, my growers will survive,” said General Manager Dale West.

Stone Corral has the good fortune this year of holding surplus water at Millerton Lake, although it’s a fluke. Last year, West bought water from Kern County and stored it behind Millerton Dam.

“I was thinking I would need it last year, but it was so expensive I was not able to sell it,” he said.

Not a problem this year. “It’s all sold,” he said. It’s admittedly pricey at $620 an acre-foot, but that’s less than the $1,300 an acre-foot some farmers paid in 2015, he said.

West said he can bring in additional water for $1,750 an acre foot but has had no buyers so far. He said Stone Corral farmers want to get by on the canal water and groundwater.

Tulare Irrigation District

Tulare Irrigation District, whose roots go back to the 1800s, normally gets half its surface water from the Friant-Kern Canal (San Joaquin River) and half from the local Kaweah River. 

This year, it is taking zero Friant-Kern Canal water because a nearby district has stepped in to take Tulare’s allocation -- 6,000 acre feet -- under a longstanding “backstop agreement,” said general manager Aaron Fukuda. 

“It’s netting us more water” because the partner district will return an even larger amount when it has extra water, he said. 

These exchanges work well for all parties over time and are typical in the Friant Division. 

Due to the lack of surface water from the Kaweah River and Friant-Kern Canal, Tulare farmers will pump groundwater to irrigate their crops, he said.

“We are the true definition of a conjunctive use irrigation district,” Fukuda said.

Conjunctive use is a key philosophy behind the Friant Division of the Central Valley Project. It means using imported water for irrigation and surplus imported water for groundwater recharge, then pumping out the groundwater in dry years.

By pumping, Tulare Irrigation District won’t violate SGMA because “TID under SGMA has enough water to meet demand in wet and dry years,” he said.

“As far as the district is concerned, TID was designed to manage drought because we recharge in wet years,” Fukuda said. “We sank 875,000 acre feet in four years.”

 Delano-Earlimart Irrigation District

Delano-Earlimart Irrigation District has the largest Class 1 contract of any Friant Division contractor. 

The 20% allocation from the Bureau of Reclamation is far from ideal, but “if we’re getting something to work with, we’ll get by,” said General Manager Eric Quinley.

Delano-Earlimart will:

-- Combine the 20% allocation with carryover water still behind Millerton Dam. 

-- Pump groundwater already deposited into the aquifer in wet years.

-- Call on the water banks.

The water bank option is the district’s ace in the hole. The district is bringing in water stored at Rosedale-Rio Bravo Water Storage District and North Kern Water Storage District, where wet year water is stored in sandy underground strata.

That water will be pumped out and delivered to Delano-Earlimart via swaps, or by placing it into the Friant-Kern Canal and pumping it over the Shafter check and Woolomnes check structures, Quinley said.

Like other water managers in the San Joaquin Valley, Quinley’s worry is shifting to next year.

“If next year is as dry as this or worse, it’ll be a much worse situation,” Quinley said. “Very taxing.”

South Valley Water Association | 3746 W Mineral King Ave, Visalia , CA 93291