Represent! | Politics, government and public life for Southern California

Controversy over 'banked water' settled

An onion farm is irrigated with water supplied by Arvin-Edison Water Storage District,
An onion farm is irrigated with water supplied by Arvin-Edison Water Storage District,
Ric Francis

It looks like a water war brewing in California has cooled down.

Lawmakers in Washington got word that an obscure agency inside the Department of the Interior was going to punish farmers and agricultural contractors for being water-wise. Farmers are able to “bank” water allocated to them for future use. But because of the drought, there were “reports” that the Bureau of Reclamation was going wasn’t going to follow through with those water deliveries.

California lawmakers, including Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein, and a bipartisan group of Central Valley Congressmen – Democrat Jim Costa and Republicans Kevin McCarthy, Devin Nunes and David Valadao – wrote to the director of the Bureau this week, telling Michael Conner “this is simply unacceptable.”

The lawmakers say Central Valley contractors took “prudent steps in years past to plan for just these circumstances by conserving water or purchasing water at great expense” – about $150 million on water transfers to preserve about a third of a million acre feet of water in San Luis Reservoir. The investment was made to ensure water would flow in dry years. Lawmakers say redirecting the water to others “would unfairly wreak economic havoc on those contractors who invested in drought reserve water supplies.”

Officially, the Bureau says no announcement has been made about rescinding that decision.

But today, Congressman Valadao says he got a phone call from the top man at the Bureau of Reclamation, saying farmers will get 100% of the water they put aside. He says the Bureau’s decision to “honor their original promises will help ensure the farmers and contractors who invested in drought reserve water supplies will have the certainty they need to plan for the coming year. Both Senator Feinstein and Senator Barbara Boxer also applauded the change of heart. Feinstein said she fully supports “Reclamation’s decision to stand with these farmers.”

But where will the water come from to fulfill the contracts? Louis Moore, a spokesman with the Bureau, says despite the rainfall in California last night and the foot of snow that fell in the Sierras, that “little bit of rain doesn’t affect the overall drought.” He says the Bureau must look at the water in the system and decide its most “appropriate use.”

The redirection of water is unlikely to affect residents of Southern California. Moore says “human services are always high” in situation when water is scarce.

 Next Wednesday, the Bureau of Reclamation is bringing together water agencies and reporters in Sacramento for an event to talk about what’s next.