HANFORD — Westside Kings County farmers who depend on Central Valley Project water are used to getting their initial water supply allocation from the federally-run system in February, which gives them time to make investment and planting decisions for the summer crop.
But this year's written announcement, released by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation this week, has left them in the dark.
As it usually does, the announcement indicates what percent of their historic allocation many CVP water recipients — mostly agricultural water districts in the Central Valley — will get.
Thanks to a massive snowpack, many of the recipients have learned they'll get 100 percent for the first time in many years.
But the Bureau's written announcement says nothing about what percent Westlands Water District, the largest in the entire CVP system and one that includes more than 10 percent of Kings County's total acreage, will receive.
Bureau Spokesman Russell Grimes said the Bureau was going to announce a percentage but decided to wait until March because of all the additional water that came into watersheds and reservoirs in February.
Grimes said he didn't have access to information about what that initial percentage was going to be.
With Wednesday's snow survey results showing a statewide snowpack water content that's 185 percent of average, many farmers and other agricultural water experts are wondering why the Bureau didn't say Westlands will get 100 percent.
"I would have to say a lot of farmers are thinking they're going to get a 100 percent supply," said Kings County grower Ted Sheely, who farms in Westlands.
Sheely expects a far lower number – around 40 percent.
He, like many farmers, is convinced that the Bureau is prioritizing endangered species rules and environmental water uses over farming.
"[Government officials] have been saying the last several years, 'It's just nature's drought,'" Sheely said. "No, it's not. Now we know the truth."
Sheely said it "doesn't make any sense" why Westlands shouldn't get 100 percent when, as he put it, there's nearly "two year's worth of water in the mountains."
Grimes said that the Bureau is obligated to follow the Endangered Species Act.
"We do our best to deliver as much water as we can," he said. "We have environmental requirements that we have to meet."
Kings County Supervisor Joe Neves, who represents a Westside district that includes part of Westlands, warned growers not to expect much despite the big mountain snowpack.
"I would expect a 50-55 percent [initial announcement], and then they would update that later," he said.
"With the improvement in hydrology and the snowpack in 2017, common sense would suggest that everyone's water allocation will be a vast improvement over the past few years," Westlands official Johnny Amaral said in a written statement. "But only time will tell if the Westside will enjoy the same water supply outlook [as others]."
Neves said that waiting until late March to make the announcement is "almost worthless" to growers who have to make planting decisions now, particularly with regard to onions and garlic.
Jason Peltier, executive director of the San Luis & Delta-Mendota Water Authority, a 29-member ag water agency that includes Westlands, called the Bureau's announcement "strange."
"I don't understand the rationale that the bureau has used for the delay," he said. "We wait for the March snow survey? Come on. We know there's a huge snowpack."
"We'll wait a couple of weeks, and hopefully we'll get some information that's real," he said.
Peltier, who used to work for Westlands, believes fishery preservation is "driving the bureau's concerns."
"The harsh fact is that fishery regulations are what dictate how the [Central Valley] Project is going to operate," he said. "There's no sugarcoating that."
Peltier expects the Trump Administration and incoming Secretary of the Interior nominee Ryan Zinke, who was confirmed by the Senate Wednesday, to take a more farm-friendly approach.
In his two years in Congress representing a Montana district, Zinke rolled back protections for some species such as the sage grouse, according to Politico.
"It's sweet to have all this water in the system, but once again we're thrust into uncertainty," Peltier said. "We need to get beyond this."
Grimes suggested that Congress would have to alter the Endangered Species Act in order for the Bureau to change the way it operates the CVP.
"The ESA is a law," Grimes said. "The executive branch can't change the law. That's up to Congress."