In a cascade of notices, the State Water Resources Control Board told junior water-rights holders in the state’s major watersheds last week to immediately stop diverting water. The board said extreme drought leaves the watersheds without enough water to serve all water-rights holders.
Cutoff notices went to about 2,700 junior water-rights holders in the Sacramento River watershed and northern delta; nearly 700 in the Russian River watershed, upstream of the Dry Creek confluence; and about 1,600 junior water-rights holders in the San Joaquin River watershed and southern delta.
Water-rights holders receiving curtailment notices were given seven days to file confirmation they’ve ceased diversion to avoid “unnecessary enforcement proceedings.”
The water board said the cutoffs will last until further notice, and warned that water-rights holders in other watersheds and those holding senior rights could face cutoffs in coming weeks.
“California farmers and ranchers know better than anybody that rains haven’t come in abundance for the last couple of years,” said Chris Scheuring, California Farm Bureau Federation environmental attorney. “But, as painful as curtailment is for many family farmers, the state board is trying to do its job, which is to administer surface water rights developed after 1914 on the basis of seniority, and curtail junior rights first when there’s not enough water to serve everybody.”
The state’s water-rights system has been established and tested in the courts to arrive at a defined approach to water allocation in times of shortage, he said, “and that’s very important in the current drought, which is among the most severe ever recorded.”
But, while the board’s action was not unexpected, Scheuring said, “there are issues of due process, the board’s methods for calculating supply and demand, how it quantifies public trust and public health and safety needs, and how voluntary curtailment agreements already in place will be handled.”
Future shortages could be avoided or minimized through construction of additional water storage and appropriate reform of regulations that have limited storage in existing reservoirs, he said.
The water board acknowledged water-rights holders in several watersheds—including much of the lower San Joaquin River Basin and southern delta—are developing local, cooperative agreements to share available water and avoid curtailment. The board said it would consider honoring these voluntary agreements, as long as they don’t result in water being taken from more senior water-rights holders or unreasonably harm fish and wildlife.
The Sacramento Valley curtailments target water diversions in creeks and rivers draining to the Sacramento River and the northern delta. The watersheds where curtailments are occurring include the Pit, McCloud, Feather, Yuba and American rivers, as well as the Sacramento River Delta.
From the perspective of water rights holders in the Sacramento Valley, David Guy, executive director of the Northern California Water Association, said curtailments were not unexpected.
“We’ve looked at the hydrology and think there’s justification for the post-1914 curtailments,” he said. “But, as we look at supplies and the rights of pre-1914 and riparian water rights holders, it becomes very tricky. I don’t think the state water board has the hydrologic justification for that (additional curtailment) right now.”
Guy said people with water in storage need to remember that previously stored water is not subject to curtailment.
“What this kind of year shows us is that water storage, like in a (proposed) Sites Reservoir, would add a tremendous amount of value,” he said. “If we had Sites online this year, there’s a good chance we’d have 400,000 acre-feet to 500,000 acre-feet of water. Wouldn’t it be nice to have that water sitting upstream right now?”
Junior water-rights holders in the San Joaquin River watershed also were told to stop diverting water and allow it to flow to more senior water-right holders, as required by state law.
Stanislaus County rancher Tom Orvis said his family’s ranch takes no stream diversions and faces the drought without supply alternatives beyond what water is stored in stock ponds.
“But, at the same time, we also see water being released at near-flood stage levels on the Stanislaus River to meet environmental requirements,” said Orvis, who directs government affairs for the Stanislaus County Farm Bureau. “In a drought emergency, that doesn’t make sense and the public knows it. There has to be a better balance between human needs and environmental needs.”
The curtailment notices sent last week advise suppliers of water for municipal or individual users to contact the state water board Division of Water Rights regarding emergency needs for continuing diversions to meet limited public health and safety requirements when there is no other supply available. Many of these suppliers also have other water sources, the board said, such as local storage, groundwater, recycled water or stormwater.
Information and links about the curtailments are available from the California Water Crisis webpage at www.cfbf.com.