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Wildlife Refuges To Get 40 Percent of Usual Water

Northern harrier hunts in the kern National Wildlife Refuge | Photo: Chris Clarke

The Federal agency that operates one of the largest waterworks in California announced Friday how it plans to parcel out the meager supplies of water it controls in drought-stricken California -- and the Central Valley's wildlife refuges are going to take a big hit.

The chain of 14 National Wildlife Refuges that protects some of the last remaining natural wetland habitat in the Central Valley will be getting only about 168,800 acre-feet of water from the Central Valley Project (CVP) this year, just 40 percent of its total.

That's according to an allocation plan released Friday by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which operates the CVP. And even the meager amount of water going to the Valley's wildlife refuges this year is significantly more than some of the the valley's farms will be getting from the CVP: not a drop.

The announcement comes three weeks after the CVP's state counterpart, the State Water Project (SWP), announced it was delivering no water to cities and farms in 2014.

The CVP plan is a little less bleak than the SWP's. Water contractors that supply the Valley's cities, towns, and industrial facilities with water will be getting between 55 and 40 percent of their usual allocations. A few smaller water contractors that supply farms with water will be getting about the same proportion. But throughout the Valley, farms served by solely agricultural water contracts, as well as those that get their water from either Friant or Millerton lakes, will be getting zero percent of their usual CVP allotment.

But farmers who decide to resent wildlife refuges' getting water when farms don't might keep in mind that if the 168,800 acre-feet being promised to the refuges was all delivered to the contractors getting no CVP water this year instead, it would make up less than four percent of the farms' usual allotment.

"This low allocation is yet another indicator of the impacts the severe drought is having on California communities, agriculture, businesses, power, and the environment," said Michael L. Connor, Reclamation Commissioner. "We will monitor the hydrology as the water year progresses and continue to look for opportunities to exercise operational flexibility in future allocations. Reclamation is working with our federal partners through the National Drought Resilience Partnership, and we are continuing our efforts with the state to find a long-term, comprehensive solution to achieve the dual goals of a reliable water supply for California and a healthy Bay Delta ecosystem that supports the state's economy."

When California was first settled by Europeans, the Central Valley was a long patchwork of meadows, grasslands and wetlands that flooded with each snowmelt. In the Tulare Basin in Kern County stood Tulare Lake: at 690 square miles, it was the largest freshwater lake west of the Mississippi, and the second largest freshwater lake entirely in the U.S., after Lake Michigan.

Few landscapes on the planet have been changed so completely in as short a period of time as the Central Valley has been in a century and a half of agricultural development. Tulare Lake disappeared in the late 1940s, its water supply from the Kings and Kern rivers diverted to irrigate crops.

Only a few percent of the Valley's natural wetlands remain, but those -- mainly protected as National Wildlife Refuges -- provide irreplaceable services to California's wildlife, waterfowl to salmon to river otters and sandhill cranes. Less water in the refuges means tougher times for the wildlife that use them.

In its announcement Friday, the Bureau of Reclamation said it will be revisiting the allocation plan should conditions change. Another storm promises to hit Northern and Central California in the next few days: farmers and wildlife fans across the state will likely be keeping their fingers crossed.

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