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Federal Officials Say 75 Percent Water Cutback Likely for Farmers

February 6, 1991

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) _ Federal officials testified Tuesday, a day after the state cut off irrigation water to California farmers, that they may be forced by drought to reduce water deliveries to growers by up to 75 percent.

Don Paff, operations chief for the federal Central Valley Project, told state legislators the best farmers can expect this year is the same as last year - 50 percent of the water they normally receive.

″The most probable is something worse than that,″ Paff said.

The federal government is the largest water supplier in California, delivering about 8.5 million acre-feet in a normal year, most of it to farmers.

The Central Valley Project delivers water to about one-third of the state’s 9.2 million acres of irrigated farmland.

A three-fourths reduction would be the worst since the second year of the 1976-77 drought, when the federal project cut deliveries to farms by 75 percent and by 25 percent to 50 percent to its municipal customers.

″I suggest to all of our (agricultural) contractors that they not plan on anything better than 1977 at this point,″ Paff told an Assembly water committee hearing.

Unseasonably heavy rains could still soften the blow before the project makes its allocations in April. However, Paff’s comments hinted at what farmers can expect when the agency makes its first official water delivery forecast next week. That forecast determines what crops many farmers will plant.

On Monday, the State Water Project announced that for the first time it would suspend agricultural deliveries entirely. In 1977, the state project cut farm supplies by 60 percent.

Clark Biggs, spokesman for the California Farm Bureau Federation, said the predicted federal cuts are even worse than what growers had expected.

″It’s a bummer. ... That’s not good. This will mean severe problems for a lot of farmers,″ Biggs said.

Jason Peltier, manager of the Central Valley Project Association, a contractors’ group, said many farmers are running out of well water that has gotten them through the last four years of drought.

″We’re going to see a tremendous amount of land out fallow,″ Peltier said. ″We’re going to see a loss of jobs, from farm laborers through the entire food processing system.″

With half the wet season over, rainfall and the snowpack are about 25 percent normal statewide. Water storage in California’s reservoirs is about 30 percent normal.

Federal project officials did not indicate whether its municipal customers would suffer cuts this year.

State water officials, meanwhile, said that instead of mandatory statewide rationing, they will consider adopting a 20 percent conservation goal on Thursday.

Earlier, state Water Resources Control Board staff proposed stringent limits of 300 gallons daily per household in cities. However, William Attwater, the board’s chief counsel, said cities want automony to decide where to cut their own water usage.

A drought task force created by Republican Gov. Pete Wilson is to make recommendations Feb. 15.

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