Federal managers said Tuesday they are speeding up delivery of irrigation water to farmers on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley because recent storms have boosted the state's water supply.
"Essentially we're saying we're confident enough right now that we can provide this as an assured water supply . . . and it will give them a jump- start on this year's water season," said Deputy Interior Secretary David Hayes.
West-side farmers suffered the greatest irrigation cutbacks last year, largely because of the state's three-year drought.
But environmental limits on pumping from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta also played a role.
The pumping curbs have been a rallying cry for Republicans and farmers attacking Endangered Species Act protections for the delta smelt.
The tiny native fish has been pushed to the edge of extinction by environmental problems and the water projects that use the Northern California delta as a switching yard.
Because west-side agriculture has junior water rights in the federal irrigation system, it is the first to get hit by water shortages.
Signs bemoaning a "Congress-created dustbowl" sprouted on dusty, unplanted fields last summer.
Last week's round of storms spawned new complaints that delta flows that could have been pumped to the San Joaquin Valley were being lost to the sea because of environmental restraints.
Against that backdrop, federal officials said they were moving up water deliveries so farmers could make planting plans for the spring season.
"The Bureau of Reclamation is providing an additional 350,000 to 400,000 acre-feet of water for west-side farms by March 1," said Interior Secretary Ken Salazar.
"We're doing our very best in the face of what is a very complex and very difficult controversy," Salazar said.
An acre-foot is about 326,000 gallons.
Much of the promised delivery represents unused amounts banked from last year at the request of irrigation districts that wanted to ensure that they could begin this planting season with some supplies.
Reclamation spokesman Pete Lucero said the agency was "taking a little bit of a risk" in deciding to make the deliveries so early in the season, when the winter could still turn dry.
"We're making these decisions early based on the fact that we've had some good in-flows into our reservoirs."