Water Rights: Farmers Prepare For Possibility of New Curtailments

Taylor Hillman General, Water

Water in agriculture
When it came, the notice was disappointing but not surprising: The State Water Resources Control Board warned farmers, ranchers and other people with water rights to prepare for another round of curtailments in 2015. Coming off a year that resulted in water cutbacks to farms even in the northern part of the state that historically enjoyed more secured supplies, some farmers say they are planning early for another year of possible reductions.

“If you are in a water-short area, you should be looking into additional conservation measures and alternative water supplies for your water needs,” the water board notice advised. “Planting and planning decisions should be made in light of possible curtailment of junior rights.”

More than 9,000 curtailment orders were issued last year to junior water right holders — those who acquired their water rights after 1914 — due to lack of supply, the board said.

Sutter County walnut farmer Mat Conant said he’s not surprised the water board sent the notice, but added that “it’s concerning because it seems a bit early.”

Conant serves on the board of the South Sutter Water District, which diverts from the Bear River and has junior water rights. He said even though the district’s surface water supplies at New Camp Far West Reservoir are in good shape after the December rains, any curtailments would affect the district’s ability to deliver adequate supplies to farmers, forcing them to rely more on groundwater.

“I’m sure growers are looking at their wells and their water table to see how they did last year,” he said.

When the South Sutter district was formed in 1954, Conant said, its main goal was to help restore overdrafted groundwater supplies. Today, the district keeps tabs on groundwater levels by monitoring its wells. As a “conjunctive use” district, it relies more heavily on surface-water supplies during wet years in order to replenish aquifers, while tapping into groundwater in years when there’s less surface water, he said.

Conant noted that while some farmers fallowed rice ground last year “so we would have a little more water to go around,” he doesn’t have that option with a permanent crop such as walnuts. For this reason, Conant said he’s continuing to make improvements to old wells and pumps, to ensure they are running efficiently. Growers are also reviewing their crop insurance to make sure it is current, he added.

Having worked at Montna Farms in Sutter County for 21 years, rice farmer Nicole Montna Van Vleck said she didn’t experience the state’s last big drought in 1991-92 and therefore “didn’t have that institutional knowledge on what to do and how to operate when you’re not planting your entire operation.”

“I think the drought taught us a lot of lessons last year,” she said.

The farm has junior water rights from several water licenses to pump out of the Sutter Bypass and does not have access to groundwater. Due to water cutbacks last year, the farm was forced to reduce one-third of its production, Van Vleck noted.

Whereas last year she was spending much time and many resources trying to figure out what the curtailments mean and how they would be implemented, she said this year she’s planning ahead by making budgets and planting decisions based on best-case and worst-case scenarios.

“Learning how to operate and manage in this ‘what-if’ type of world is new,” she said, “but we do have tools now that help us. We have the benefit of what we did last year, of what worked and what didn’t, so it’s a little easier from a management standpoint, because we’re better informed than we were last year.”

Having less water to grow rice has other negative impacts, such as to waterfowl and other migratory birds that depend on flooded rice fields for food and habitat, she said.

As part of the Sutter Bypass-Butte Slough Water Users Association, Van Vleck said the group is exploring alternate water supplies, such as buying water from another district, but she acknowledged the association does not yet have a solution.

For Jim Van Dyke, who runs a rice drying operation in Pleasant Grove, the economic impact of the drought truly hit home last year when business at the facility dropped 35 percent because of reduced plantings. He said if water supplies do not recover, he expects his business will decline at least 50 percent this year — and that means he won’t be hiring any part-time employees during rice harvest in September and October.

Van Dyke’s daughter also farms rice, and he reported that she faced severe water cutbacks last year. On one ranch that buys water from the Pleasant Grove-Verona Mutual Water Co., which draws water from Shasta Dam through the federal Central Valley Project, he said she received no water and ended up planting only one-fifth of the land, using groundwater and “what some pumps could handle.”

Farmers with junior water rights are not the only ones concerned about how the rest of the rainy season will play out and the potential of having their supplies cut off.

Dino Del Carlo, a diversified farmer in San Joaquin County, said even though he has some riparian and pre-1914 water rights, there is no guarantee that they would be protected from curtailments if weather patterns don’t change in the next six weeks.

“For those of us who rely solely on surface water, it’s a very scary situation,” he said, noting that he does not have wells or access to groundwater. “There’s going to be some very difficult decisions made in the next couple of months for us.”

Del Carlo also farms on some leased ground that has water licenses that were curtailed last year, but he said he did OK because he planted crops such as wheat and safflower that didn’t have to be irrigated in the summer. He said he plans to grow the same type of crops on those properties where he has junior rights, but he’s less certain about what to do on land with senior rights.

The state water board did not curtail riparian and pre-1914 water rights last year, but Del Carlo said it remains “a guessing game” whether the board will attempt to do so this year.

Complicating matters is the fact that although the board has some preliminary authority to issue “cease and desist” orders to stop the unauthorized diversion of water, it does not have general jurisdiction over riparian and pre-1914 water rights. California Farm Bureau Federation environmental attorney Chris Scheuring said that would likely make any curtailment actions against those categories of senior water rights a matter of controversy.

In its notice, issued Jan. 23, the water board warned water right holders — including those with riparian and pre-1914 water rights — that curtailing diversions might be necessary again this year due to surface water shortage.

The letter said “if hydrologic conditions do not significantly improve in the next several months, the State Water Board will once again begin notifying water right holders in critically dry watersheds of the requirement to limit or stop diversions of water under their water right, based on their priority.”

The most junior right holders would be required to discontinue use first, but some more-senior riparian and pre-1914 water right holders might also be asked to stop diverting water “based on their priority or limitation of natural flow,” the letter explained.

Ching Lee is an assistant editor of Ag Alert by the California Farm Bureau Federation.

She may be contacted at clee@cfbf.com.

Used with permission from Ag Alert