After three consecutive years of drought, the outlook for 2010 just got worse for scores of California grower-shippers and municipal water districts.

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The state’s Department of Water Resources announced Dec. 1 an initial allocation of 5% of contracted water deliveries to State Water Project contractors for 2010, the lowest percentage since the agency began delivering water in 1967.
“On the heels of a three-year drought, we need to prepare now so that we have adequate water supplies for homes, farms and businesses,” Lester Snow, director of the department, said in a news release. 

The 5% allocation compares to a 15% initial projection for 2009.
The outlook may not be as bleak as the projection implies, however. Before the 2009 water delivery season concluded, snow and rainfall permitted the allocation to be increased to 40%. The previous low for an initial allocation was 10% in 1993, but heavy precipitation that year increased the allocation to 100%.
The projected 2010 allocation is a very conservative estimate of what the Department of Water Resources expects it can deliver, according to the release.

Irrigation water districts and municipalities had requested 100% of the maximum contractual amount, or nearly 4.2 million acre feet of water. Those cities and irrigation districts provide water to the homes of more than 25 million Californians and more than 750,000 acres of farmland, according to the release. 

The bulk of that farmland is along the west side of the San Joaquin Valley and includes lettuce, melon, tomato, almond and pistachio crops. The severity of the drought is evidenced by the reduced plantings of lettuce this year in western Fresno County. Lettuce plantings were about 5,000 acres, down from more than 30,000 acres just a few years ago, according to data from the Fresno County Agricultural Commissioner’s office.

In addition to the drought conditions, the 5% initial allocation reflects low storage levels in the state’s major reservoirs and court-ordered pumping restrictions on deliveries from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, according to the release.

The state’s long range water picture could be brighter.

“The Legislature took a major step forward to address the state’s water needs by heeding Governor Schwarzenegger’s call and passing the most comprehensive water package in California history,” Snow said in the release.
There is a caveat. The water package includes an $11 billion bond measure that must be approved by voters in 2010. If he measure passes, most of the projects the bond will fund will take more than a decade to construct.