Drought-stricken California farmers and cities are set to get more water thanks to an unexpected rush of rain and snow, which has allowed state and federal officials of ease cutbacks to the water supply.
The state’s 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 1 million acres of farmland.
While the move from zero to five percent will still fall far short of what farmers say they need, the decision comes as a relief to many who were shocked when California’s government announced it would not distribute any water to local agencies in January.
The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation also 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 are still urging farmers and other Californians to be extremely cautious with their water use. Many have predicted that the rest of 2014 will remain relatively dry and 2015 will be an equally dry year.
"The bottom line is we will continue to see more calls for water use restrictions throughout urban areas," Cowin 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 Sacramento-San Joaquin 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."
Al Jazeera and wire services