Scrutiny of California water use will intensify as the state’s fourth consecutive dry year wears on, and water regulators say they are preparing to take further action. Already, nearly 9,000 junior water rights have been curtailed and the State Water Resources Control Board said it is poised to begin curtailing senior water right holders—including those who hold riparian and appropriative rights.
Anticipating impending cuts by the state, Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta farmers with riparian water rights proposed a 25 percent cut in their water diversions or plantings last week, saying the program is intended to help alleviate pressure on water supplies and protect delta farmers against deeper curtailments as the summer growing season progresses.
The state water board approved the proposal Friday. Between June and September, participating riparian water right holders in the delta will not face further riparian curtailment during the growing season.
Board Chair Felicia Marcus said the agreement “allows participating growers to share in the sacrifice that people throughout the state are facing because of the severe drought, while protecting their economic well-being by giving them some certainty regarding exercise of the state water board’s enforcement discretion at the beginning of the planting season.”
Farmers who participate in the program may opt to reduce water diversions under their riparian rights by 25 percent or idle 25 percent of their land. In either case, the reductions would be from 2013 levels. Riparian water right holders who choose not to participate in the program may face enforcement of riparian curtailments later this year, though water officials said the risk of curtailment would not be any greater than it would have been if the program were not approved.
To be included in the program for delta riparian water right holders, participants will have to submit a specific plan to achieve the program’s conservation requirements by June 1, and the state water board said it will conduct spot checks during the growing season.
Riparian water rights are held by those who own property that abuts a river or stream and divert water for use on that property. Unlike appropriative rights, which are curtailed by seniority along a waterway, riparian rights are curtailed collectively by a shared percentage.
Because most of the farmland in the delta abuts natural streams and sloughs, riparian water right claims are more extensive in the delta than in other agricultural regions of the state, the water board said.
Although the conservation program had been proposed by riparian water rights holders in the delta, the water board said the program could be a template for riparian right holders in other parts of the state, “subject to adjustment for local and regional conditions.”
But California Farm Bureau Federation environmental attorney Chris Scheuring said because of the delta’s unique geography of islands and channels, there’s a large concentration of riparian right holders there, which may not reflect water availability and diversion practices throughout the state.
“We’re not certain how applicable this program would be to other areas,” he said. “This will be up to local water agencies and individual water right holders to determine.”
Noting that collaborative solutions tend to be better than regulatory outcomes, Scheuring said, “at the same time, we think most water users are well served simply by orderly administration of the water rights system, in dry years as well as good years.”
The water board said it’s open to voluntary agreements to manage and mitigate drought impacts, as long as they do not harm other water rights and do not cause unreasonable effects to fish and wildlife.
The board has also warned water right holders throughout the state, including senior and riparian right holders, that curtailments are likely this year because of the worsening drought conditions. Junior water right holders in the Sacramento and San Joaquin river watersheds and others have already been curtailed for the second consecutive year.
Earlier in the week, the board held a marathon 12-hour workshop on drought-related activities, including the prospect of further curtailment of water diversions for holders of some of the state’s oldest water rights, including thousands of farms and ranches relying on senior appropriative rights for irrigation.
Inspections began May 1 to ensure curtailment compliance for junior water right holders, water board staff reported. Inspections are being prioritized based on lack of response to curtailment certification notices, size and season of diversions, geographic location and flow conditions.
Notices to stop diverting water for those holding pre-1914 rights in the San Joaquin River watershed were expected to begin as early as last Friday, but water officials told reporters that flows in the watersheds are being carefully monitored and exact dates for curtailment remain to be determined.
Water board staff said San Joaquin River watershed pre-1914 rights may be curtailed in coming days, while curtailment of riparian rights could begin by June 15.
Sacramento River watershed and delta pre-1914 rights currently are under review, the board said, but tentative curtailment dates have not been announced.
The precise number of water rights that will be curtailed in coming weeks also remains to be determined, said Kathy Mrowka, state water rights enforcement manager, who briefed the water board on curtailments last week.
State water managers have been closely monitoring stream flow and demand in watersheds, to decide when to issue curtailment orders, Marcus said during a Friday news conference.
Curtailment notices are posted online at www.waterboards.ca.gov/waterrights/water_issues/programs/drought/water_availability.shtml.
This story was written by Kate Campbell and used with permission.
Kate Campbell is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.