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California Drought: State water contractors get 5 percent; What does that really mean?

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.
Mae Ryan/KPCC
The late spring storms have translated into much needed water supplies for communities, farmers and environmental habitat, said the Department of Water Resources.

The Department of Water Resources announced Friday that long-term contractors with the State Water Project will get 5 percent of their expected allocation. The move puts water contractors right back where they started in the first place; back in November, five percent is what they told those contractors to expect on the season.

RELATED: California farmers to get more water

State officials, including DWR Director Mark Cowin, attributed the tiny boost to efforts to capture stormwater runoff during February and March storms, and conservation.

The late spring storms have translated into much needed water supplies for communities, farmers and environmental habitat, said Cowin. As this drought continues, we need all Californians to remain vigilant and use every drop of water wisely.

So what does 5 percent mean, practically speaking?

It's not nuthin'. But it's barely something, and the savvy long-term contractors to the SWP weren't going to count on more than that amount in the first place.

All together, state water contractors asked for around 4 million acre feet of water. (I know, that measurement is confusing; from a residential standpoint, water guys plan on a half to an acre foot of water a year for a family of four in a detached home, if that gives you a little idea.) There's 200,000 acre feet available. Most of that will go toward irrigation and agriculture.

What may be most important to this announcement is the ever-so-slight lift it gives psychologically. A bullet dodged, sort of (though the gun ain't empty). The only other time a zero allocation happened in the state's 54-year history of doing this was in 1991, for agriculture only. (Back in the day, ag and cities got separate allocations. The state now issues just one allocation number for everyone.)

The big winners here ­--and they'd say the win isn't that big ­--are agricultural users in the Central Valley. At a zero allocation point, only drinking water, emergency and fire-use water, and water transferred between willing buyers and sellers would have been guaranteed. While farms would have been allowed to store water from year to year and "carry over" their allocations, even that water is accounted for very closely. Five percent lifts their worst fears, some.

In cities, water managers generally prefer that we ignore this news. They still want us to conserve. They still want us to get into better habits.