Drought-stricken California farmers and cities are set to get more water as state and federal officials ease cutbacks due to recent rain and snow, officials announced on Friday.
The Department of Water Resources said it is increasing water allotments from the State Water Project from zero to 5 percent of what water districts have requested. The State Water Project supplies water to 29 public agencies serving more than 25 million Californians and irrigates nearly a million acres of farmland.
Also, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation said it will supply 75 percent of the water requested by water agencies in the Sacramento Valley, up from the current 40 percent.
"This is all a bit of good news in an otherwise bleak water year," Mark Cowin, director of the California Department of Water Resources, said on a conference call with reporters.
The state's increase to a 5 percent allocation will make a little more than 200,000 acre-feet available. An acre-foot is enough water to cover an acre to a depth of 1 foot, and roughly enough to sustain a family of four for a year.
Federal and state officials said rain and snow from storms in February and March allowed them to increase water allotments.
The news comes as the state is experiencing its third consecutive dry year. Gov. Jerry Brown declared a drought emergency in January.
State officials said the recent storms also removed the need to immediately install rock barriers, blocking certain channels of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, to prevent saltwater intrusion. The expensive barriers would have adverse impacts on fish and wildlife and worsen water quality for some agricultural users, according to state officials.
Cowan said that the state has increased its water allotment but asked suppliers not to draw from it until after Sept. 1. Officials worry about yet another dry year for California in 2015. Cowan also urged residents to conserve their water use.
"The bottom line is we will continue to see more calls for water use restrictions throughout urban areas," he said. "I expect those to be more and more severe over the course of the summer."
Brian Stranko of the Nature Conservancy, which advocates for fish and wildlife, welcomed the meager increases, saying wetlands for migrating birds north of the Delta will benefit from the government's decision to increase water flows, but wetlands in the Central Valley will continue to suffer.
He also praised the decision not to build rock barriers on the Delta, which would also block migrating salmon.
"We don't have to do that right now," Stranko said. "It's a good thing."
Jim Beck, manager of the Kern County Water Agency in Bakersfield, said most people think of a 5 percent increase as almost insignificant, but compared to receiving no water -- what they had been told -- that meager increase is huge. The agency provides 90 percent of its water to farmers.
"Our growers are really turning over every rock to find every bit of water," Beck said. "This really changes things."
All California farmers and water users get the advantage of the state's 5 percent increase, if they're tapped into California's State Water Project. Others tied to the federally run Central Valley Project north of the Delta get the 75 percent increase with Friday's announcement.
Yet those using federal water south of the Delta remain at a zero water allotment, including hundreds of Central Valley farmers who rely on the Westlands Water District, the nation's largest supplier of water for agricultural use.
Gayle Holman, a Westlands spokeswoman, said its farmers will continue to rely on ground wells to make up for water they're not getting from reservoirs and canals, she said.
There's an indirect benefit to the increase in water for farmers in the north, Holman said, noting that it adds water into the system and makes water transfers a little more available for southland farmers to buy, although at top dollar.
"The situation is still very severe," she said. "It is definitely one where growers are literally taking it day by day."