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May 16, 2006 > Central Valley farmers to be flush with water after wet winter

Central Valley farmers to be flush with water after wet winter

by JULIANA BARBASSA, Associated Press Writer

FRESNO, Calif. (AP), May 12 -  For the first time in a decade, farmers on the west side of the San Joaquin valley will get 100 percent of the water they expect under contracts with the federal government.

Farmers who have complained for years about getting shortchanged by environmental laws that crimp irrigation supplies have a wet winter that raised reservoirs and buried mountains with snow to thank for the bounty.

``It's just hard to believe, it's been so long,'' said Dan Errotabere, who farms 5,000 acres of almonds, garlic, tomatoes, cotton and other crops with water supplied through the Central Valley Project.

Flush with surface water, most farmers will be able to shut down the pumps that draw from the water table, allowing it to recharge and store water that can be used in time of drought, Errotabere said, adding that the delta water is also of a better quality, and easier on the soil.

Westlands, the irrigation district that supplies Errotabere, has had to put hundreds of acres out of production because years of irrigation with brackish water made the land unproductive.

The taxpayer-financed irrigation project started pumping water from the San Joaquin-Sacramento River delta to the western side of the valley in the 1960s, relieving farmers from relying too heavily on groundwater, which can be dried up if there is too much demand and not enough time to recharge.

But sucking water from the delta upset the balance of fresh snowmelt to ocean water moving in from the San Francisco Bay, and hurt fauna, flora and farmers in the area. A federal act passed in 1992 mandated that a certain amount of water be set aside to protect delta wildlife, cutting back on the farmers' supply.

Since then, farmers like Errotabere have received an average of 70 percent of what they were guaranteed by contracts with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamations. This has been the first year in a decade where there was enough water to meet the all needs.

This bounty comes as irrigation districts such as Westlands are renegotiating their federal water contracts, which would lock in the same water supplies they were given decades ago for another 25 years.

Critics say that if Westlands has retired land, and the farmers operating in the area have learned to be more efficient, making do with less than the water they were granted under the old contract, there's no reason to renew their rights to all that water for decades to come.

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