How much water will farmers in California get this year? The answer may surprise you.

Last week, the House Natural Resources Committee held a hearing on California's water supply this year, with particular emphasis on farmers in the Central Valley.  Largely as a result of three consecutive dry years, this is going to be a pretty tough water year for water users across the state.  For some farmers, the Central Valley Project (CVP) is going to deliver little or no water this year.  Zero water deliveries would have big impacts on farm workers, communities, and local economies, particularly those in the San Joaquin Valley.   

But other farmers, sometimes the next farm over, are going to get 100% of their allocation from the CVP.  What gives?

Some of these farmers (the Exchange Contractors in the San Joaquin Valley and the Sacramento River Settlement Contractors) have claimed extensive water rights dating back to well before the CVP was created.  As a result, the Bureau of Reclamation (Bureau), which operates the CVP, supplies these priority contractors with water before delivering any water to other contractors

Under California's "first in time, first in right" system of hybrid appropriative water rights, those folks who got here first get their water before anyone else.  What all this means is that in a year like this, when water supplies are limited, some folks get all their water, and others get little or no water. 

When the Bureau can make 100% allocations, it delivers more than 7 million acre feet of water to farmers, municipal and industrial customers, and wildlife refuges.  The vast majority of this water - more than 75% - goes to agricultural customers.  (In contrast, the State Water Project predominately delivers water to urban areas, mostly in Southern California).  

Although much of the media coverage has focused on central valley farmers who may get a 0% allocation from the CVP, when you look at the CVP as a whole, and include the se farmers who hold or claim to hold senior water rights, it looks like the CVP will be delivering farmers  approximately 50% of their allocations. 



Acre Feet

Percentage of Allocation

Total Deliveries with 100% allocation

Exchange Contractors




Sacramento River Settlement Contractors




CVP contract water for Settlement Contractors




Friant Division (Class 1)




Friant Division (Class 2)




North of Delta CVP Ag Contractors




South of Delta CVP Ag Contractors








Sources: U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, Congressional Research Service

Another way of looking at the numbers is that the CVP will deliver nearly enough water to farmers in the Central Valley this year to cover the entire state of Rhode Island (nearly 800,000 acres) with 2 feet of water. 

These overall numbers masks some huge inequities - some get 100%, and some get zero.  But due to the rainfall in March, the farmers south of the Delta appear likely to get more than 0%; the Bureau estimated there was a 50% chance that farmers north and south of the Delta will end up getting 15% of their contractual amounts.

Equally important, water markets allow these priority contractors to sell the water to farmers and urban areas that don't have senior rights, transferring the water in exchange for hundreds of thousands of dollars, or more.  Transfers can help farmers to keep their almond orchards and other permanent crops from dying this year, as well as helping minimize the economic and social pain in the Valley.

In many cases these priority contractors can conserve water through improved water use efficiency.  Sometimes the farmers make significant money saving water, because water conservation can also save energy.  Over the past two years, the farmers with priority contracts at Reclamation district 108 apparently were able to save $300,000 a year by reducing their water use and saving the power needed to operate pumps to drain their fields.  They were still able to plant 100% of their fields with a 75% allocation, which presumably made water available for transfer and sale.  Incidentally, these priority contractors also don't have to pay anything for most of the water they get; recently, one of them was quoted in a local paper saying that paying $9.03 for an acre foot of CVP contract water was "prohibitively expensive," as that district was about to make $139,000 from selling 3 days worth of that water.   

Frankly, California has overpromised how water much it can deliver, and we're all suffering for it.  The salmon fishery has been shut down for two years in part because of the problems in the Bay Delta watershed, resulting in thousands of lost jobs and millions of dollars in economic losses.  Several native fish species in the Delta (longfin smelt and delta smelt) have been driven to the brink of extinction in part because of water project operations.  And farmers are promised more water than we can deliver most years.  The State Water Resources Control Board has estimated that the State has issued water rights for 4 times more water than has ever flowed through the Bay Delta watershed, and for more than 8 times the average amount of water flowing through the system - nearly 245 million acre feet per year of water rights in a system that averages 29 million acre feet per year.

In part as a result of this oversubscription and the fact that the CVP and SWP are some of the most junior appropriators in the system, since 1991, the CVP has rarely made 100% deliveries to all of its customers; the farmers south of the Delta who do not have pre-CVP water rights only received 100% allocations in 1995, 1998, and 2006.  As the Bureau testified to Congress this week, "In an average water year, allocations are approximately 100 percent for agricultural water service contractors north of the Delta and 65 percent for agricultural water service contractors south of the Delta."  And the likely impacts of climate change mean it will become ever more difficult to meet contractual amounts for farmers in the San Joaquin Valley.  

Government shouldn't promise more water than it can deliver. These contracts can and should be reformed to allow water users to plan and invest according to a realistic set of expectations and to reduce the pressure on water agencies to sacrifice ecosystem health for short-term gain.  The agricultural sector should continue to improve the efficiency of its water use; many farmers have made significant gains in efficiency over the years, but there's still more gains to be had, some of which even save money for farmers (like the farmers in RD 108 found).  Everyone one of us should use water wisely, saving water and avoiding waste so that there is more for our neighbors, our communities, and our environment.  California needs water policies that result in a State with a sustainable agricultural economy, productive urban areas, and healthy fisheries and Delta environment, now and into the future.  With climate change, and with no assurances that next year won't also be dry, now's the time for each of us to do our part.

While water transfers will help minimize the economic pain this year, there won't be enough water to meet everyone's demand, even with transfers.  There is little question that the state and federal governments should provide economic assistance to the agricultural communities most affected by water shortages this year.  The federal government helped salmon fishermen and fishing businesses that were put out of work the past two years as a result of the salmon fishery closure, and California and the feds should be lending a helping hand to agricultural workers during this tough year.

Over the long run, investing in groundwater banks, improved water use efficiency and other water supply alternatives will help sustain Central Valley agriculture and communities.  We also believe that investing in new facilities to generate solar power can create new jobs and strengthen and diversify local economies. As the Congressional Research Service noted in a 2005 report, and as the Valley's congressmen have noted more recently, there are many challenges facing the Central Valley, and we need to address the challenges in a comprehensive manner that builds a healthier and more diverse economy, creates more jobs, and sustains agriculture in the Valley. 

Ultimately, NRDC wants healthy agricultural and urban communities and a healthy environment.  That's something I think most Californians want, too, and something that California can and should achieve.  We're not there yet, but I think we're making progress.