Despite the wettest California fall-winter season in four years and with yet another major storm moving into the state, the federal Bureau of Reclamation's initial 2010 water delivery forecast calls for water service contractors to receive just 5% of contracted quantities.

The forecast, released Feb. 26, is based on conditions as of Feb. 1, according to a news release. The bureau, a division of the U.S. Department of Interior, said that if the wet conditions continue, the allotment may be increased to 30%.

“It (the forecast) is a little frustrating in that we’ve had adequate rainfall,” said Sarah Woolf, spokeswoman for Westlands Water District, which provides irrigation water to more than 500,000 acres of San Joaquin Valley farmland.

Nearly simultaneous with the report, the California Department of Water Resources announced it had increased from 5% to 15% anticipated 2010 state water project deliveries to water contractors. If the amount in the state’s final allocation – to be released in the spring – is unchanged, it will be the lowest water allocation percentage in the project’s nearly 50-year history, according to the department’s news release.

The federal bureau’s signal that water deliveries could climb to 30% may have sidetracked a campaign by California Senator Dianne Feinstein to return for two years pumping of federal irrigation water to the 40% allocation level. The senator had announced plans to introduce an amendment that, if passed and signed by the president, would have implemented the temporary pumping increase. 

Following the bureau’s news release, Senator Feinstein released a statement that read in part:

“I will watch this situation carefully and I am placing my proposed amendment on hold; however, I reserve the right to bring it back should it become necessary.”

Three years of drought and court ordered restrictions on pumping forced the fallowing of more than 500,000 acres in the San Joaquin Valley in 2009.

“For farmers and their employees, this is like a nightmare that you can’t wake up from,” Paul Wenger, president of the California Farm Bureau Federation, said in a news release. “What makes it worse is that, unlike previous years, these low allocations come at a time when snowpack levels stand near average and our reservoirs are refilling.”

Further frustrating growers is the area’s five-year average for federal agriculture water allocation is 57%, according to the bureau’s own records, and National Weather Service statistics show the rainfall total in Fresno is nearly 10% above the season-to-date average.   

The final federal forecast, which is scheduled to be announced in about two months, may come too late for west side farmers and farmworkers. The 5% forecast means most growers will be unable to get bank loans to purchase seed, fertilizers and other chemicals and to prepare the fields for planting, Woolf said.  

“You cannot get a bank loan on 5%; you can on 30%,” she said. “People will not be put back to work at 5%; workers will be hired at 30%.”

Putting farmworkers back on the job is particularly important to the west side communities of Huron, Mendota and San Joaquin where the unemployment rate exceeds 40%. 

Westlands Water District has appealed directly to Interior Sec. Ken Salazar to increase the forecast to 30% immediately, Woolf said.