New Water Cuts Tighten Screws on Farmers

Taylor Hillman Drought, General, Water

kate cambellBy Kate Campbell, Ag Alert

In an expected, but disappointing announcement last week, state water officials told holders of pre-1914 water rights—with a priority date of 1903 and later—to immediately stop diverting water. The notice applies to senior water right holders within the Sacramento-San Joaquin watersheds and delta.

The State Water Resources Control Board said the notice to stop diverting water is due to “insufficient natural flows” and warned further curtailments are likely in coming weeks. Curtailments will continue until water conditions improve, the board said last week.

In addition to cutting water diversions in May for about 9,100 junior water right holders, officials said last week’s action affects 276 water rights in the Sacramento River watershed. In the San Joaquin River watershed, 24 water rights have been curtailed and, in the delta, another 125.

East Contra Costa Irrigation District, Nevada Irrigation District and Oakdale Irrigation District are among the water districts, companies and individuals being curtailed.

How much water will actually flow from the decision to curtail senior and riparian water rights remains to be seen, officials said.

SWRCB executive director Tom Howard said water previously stored in reservoirs is not affected by this notice.

“Stored water is essentially the property of the person who stored it,” Howard said, but added those supplies probably won’t prevent fields from being fallowed.

Penalties for not complying with the curtailment notice include $1,000 per day, $2,500 per acre-foot diverted and $10,000 per day in fines for failure to comply with a cease-and-desist order. Water board officials said the move to curtail does not affect riparian water rights at this time.

“Those with rights earlier than 1903 in the watersheds can continue to divert in accordance with their water right,” said the water board’s Caren Trgovcich. “Those who previously stored water under a valid right may continue to hold that water or release it for beneficial use.”

Responding to the water board’s curtailment announcement, California Farm Bureau Federation President Paul Wenger noted the state’s water-rights system was created to deal with unreliable, and often scarce, supplies.

“We have scarcity that California hasn’t seen in many, many years, if ever,” Wenger said. “As the water-right system responds to shortage in this extraordinary year, it underscores the need to pursue long-term efforts to reduce the underlying scarcity that plagues us.”

Wenger noted that the additional cuts in water for food and farm production will deepen the impact of the four-year drought on rural parts of California.

“With every turn of the screw as water supplies shrink, more people suffer,” he said. “Water shortages undermine rural economies, both in the short term and the long term, and these additional shortages will spread that impact to more people in more places.”

The solution for California water shortages must come ultimately from aggressive efforts to improve supplies, Wenger said.

“California must remove obstacles to development of new water storage and pursue new supplies through recycling, desalination and other technologies,” he said. “The spreading shortages from the current drought only underline the need to move swiftly.”

Oakdale Irrigation District officials said last week the state water board’s curtailment action to restrict agencies with century-old water rights is “unjustified and likely illegal.”

OID’s water rights on the Stanislaus River date to 1909. It delivers irrigation water stored behind a series of dams to about 2,900 customers who farm about 60,000 acres in northeastern Stanislaus County and southeastern San Joaquin County.

“The state water board . . . does not have jurisdiction to issue, manage, oversee or curtail pre-1914 water rights,” said Steve Knell, OID’s top official.

Knell said OID and other senior rights holders are prepared to seek a stay in court to halt the state’s action until a judge can make a final ruling.

He challenged the state’s methodology and said there was no opportunity ahead of time for senior rights holders to appeal to the water board.

He said water agencies in the San Joaquin River basin—which runs from Stockton to Fresno—have a long history of solving water shortages among themselves.

Water board officials said they anticipate lawsuits. “They have a right to their day in court,” Howard said.

The curtailment of senior water right holders demonstrates the seriousness of the current drought and proves the existing water right system works, said Mike Wade of the California Farm Water Coalition.

“While the latest curtailment order was not a surprise, it’s still troubling news for farmers in those areas that have invested years of time and money to grow the food sought by consumers,” Wade said. “For some farmers this will likely mean abandonment of crops already planted this year under the assumption their water supplies were more secure.”

This story was originally published in the California Farm Bureau’s Ag Alert.
Kate Campbell is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at