May 29. 2014
California has ordered more than 2,600 water agencies and users in the Sacramento Valley to stop pumping water from streams, a drastic response to the ongoing drought that hasn’t occurred since 1977.
The curtailment notice was imposed by the State Water Resources Control Board late Wednesday. It affects 2,648 water agencies, farms, cities and other property owners with so-called “junior” water rights, or those issued by the state after 1914, in the Sacramento River and its tributaries. This includes the American, Feather and Yuba rivers as well as dozens of small streams.
Most of the affected water users are farmers and large irrigation districts. But they also include major urban water providers such as the city of Sacramento.
“There’s no question there are going to be some areas in the Sacramento Valley that are going to suffer without water this year,” said David Guy, president of the Northern California Water Association, which represents many Sacramento Valley property owners and irrigation districts, including some affected by the order.
A water right, granted by the state, bestows the power to divert a certain amount of water from a stream or river. California’s system of water rights is the state’s way of sharing limited water resources among many different users.
The city of Sacramento has junior water rights in the Sacramento River and will now have to halt that diversion. But like many of the affected diverters, the city also has other water supplies. It has “senior” water rights in the American River, which are not affected by the order.
City officials said they would look to stretch the supplies that come with those senior rights further and rely more heavily on conservation.
The city imposed a 20 percent mandatory conservation order in January, and residents have been inching closer to reaching it in recent weeks, said city spokeswoman Jessica Hess. She said the city has cut its own water use in public buildings, parks and landscaping more than 50 percent.
“The city has been and will continue to take the possibility of further cuts in supply very seriously,” Hess said via email.
The curtailment of junior rights is intended to preserve limited water supplies for those with senior rights – bestowed before 1914 – who have a legally superior privilege to access water under state law. Senior water rights holders tend to comprise the same mix of users – water agencies and farmers – with the major difference being they simply started using the water first and established a legal right to it earlier.
Water board officials said they are prepared to make exceptions to the curtailment order for urban areas that have no other source of water.
“We recognize how challenging this drought is for junior water-right holders and their customers,” board chairwoman Felicia Marcus said in a statement, “and we will make adjustments in real time, based upon the flow in our rivers and streams … and other new information.”
Steep crop cuts planned
Water cuts on this scale have not been ordered in California since the drought of 1977. Although backup supplies, including groundwater, are available to many who hold junior rights, virtually all of them will be forced to make difficult decisions, such as fallowing significant areas of farmland, Guy said.
Still, he said, the state is simply following the law that applies given the drought conditions. “I think the state water board is absolutely justified in issuing these curtailment notices,” Guy said. “This is the way the system is supposed to work.”
The Colusa Drain Mutual Water Co. is one example of how the drought has affected users. Operated by a collection of farmers in the Colusa Basin north of Sacramento, the water company distributes, via the Colusa Drain, water rights held by its members in the Sacramento River. Virtually all those are junior rights that are directly affected by the curtailment order.
Jim Wallace, president of the water company, said he warned members to expect “zero” water supply under their water rights this year, based on runoff projections and early warnings by the water board. As a result, most decided weeks or even months ago to plant crops based only on what they could support with alternate water supplies, whether groundwater or some other surface water they might have available.
But that doesn’t mean all is well, Wallace said. Of the 56,000 acres served by the water company, 20,000 acres are normally planted with rice. This year, only about 4,000 acres are planted in rice, an 80 percent reduction. Steep cuts also have occurred in tomatoes and alfalfa, the other primary crops grown in the district.
“It’s a huge reduction in our grower base,” Wallace said. “The worst-case scenario was made official yesterday, and was already anticipated by every grower in my group. Each water manager up and down the Sacramento Valley would have a similar story.”
Wallace’s own family farm, overseen by his 87-year-old father, has cut its normal rice acreage from 2,500 acres to 550. The family is relying on well water to serve the remaining acres, which comes with additional pumping expense.
“We’ve been through some tough situations,” he said. “This year is the most severe result that I have seen.”
‘We will say no’
In its notice, the water board refrained from imposing similar curtailments in the San Joaquin Valley, because it is considering allowing water users there to manage their supplies under a voluntary agreement.
The order requires entities with junior water rights to complete a form within seven days, acknowledging the order and affirming they have stopped diverting water. Failure to comply could result in fines of $1,000 per day and $2,500 per acre-foot of diverted water.
The board also warned that curtailments could expand to include senior water rights as conditions worsen throughout the hot summer months. This was the subject of a workshop held by the board last week in Sacramento.
“Probably one of biggest difficulties this year is all of the creek flows are just drying up much more quickly and substantially than in other years,” Paul Fujitani, chief of regional water operations for the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, told the board.
Concerns have mounted across the state since December, when normal seasonal storms failed to materialize. The dry trend continued through January, normally one of the wettest months of the year in California. Although February and March were wetter than average, the state could not make up the deficit, especially after two preceding dry years.
By May 1, when the state conducted its final snow survey of the year, the Sierra Nevada snowpack was down to 18 percent of average for the date, leaving precious little runoff to resupply reservoirs and keep creeks and rivers flowing.
Even amid the drought conditions, some senior water rights holders have told the state they won’t tolerate cuts to their historic rights. They argue that the law makes clear that what water the state has belongs first to them and there are no exceptions.
A number of water agencies and their attorneys warned state officials at the board workshop last week they could face a “water war” if they move to restrict senior water rights.
“There is no way senior water rights holders are going to share the pain,” said Tim O’Laughlin, an attorney for Oakdale Irrigation District. “We will say no, and then we’ll just go to court and see who’s right about it. Then it’s just going to be a water-rights war.”
He and others noted that the state this year already has compromised its standards for protecting water quality in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta to benefit junior water rights holders. They said it would now be unfair to impose curtailments on senior diverters in order to satisfy Delta water quality rules, to help wildlife or to meet urban health and safety needs.
“There will be people who will be lined up to take you into court,” said Dan Kelly, an attorney for the Placer County Water Agency and others. “The reality is, water rights priorities are harsh. There is no health and safety exception to the water rights system. There just isn’t.”
Call The Bee’s Matt Weiser at (916) 321-1264. Follow him on Twitter @matt_weiser.