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Farmers get new water cuts

An aerial view of the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta.

State water officials today ordered cuts to scores of Central Valley growers and ranchers, limiting supplies to farmers who have had rights to the water for more than a century. The cutbacks mark the first time since 1977 — also a severe drought year — that such reductions have been ordered.

The State Water Resources Control Board said that there was “insufficient water available for senior water right holders with a priority date of 1903 or later in the San Joaquin and Sacramento watersheds and the Delta. The need for further curtailment of more senior rights and curtailments in other watersheds is being assessed weekly.”

The board’s action is the latest in a series of cuts ordered by the Brown administration to deal with the state’s unprecedented drought.

Officials said some 247 holders of water rights are affected by the orders, which bars them from diverting water, on the Sacramento and San Joaquin watersheds and in the Sacrament-San Joaquin River Delta east of San Francisco.

“Some water right holders may have other, more senior rights to fall back on, or have water stored in reservoirs that they can still access. If that’s not available they will have to find other sources of water, such as groundwater or purchased water, if available,” the board said.

The board’s action is the latest in a series of cuts ordered by the Brown administration to deal with the state’s unprecedented drought.

California water rights law is based on seniority. In dry years, when there isn’t enough water in the system to serve all water right holders, those with more junior rights are required to stop diverting water from rivers and streams before restrictions are imposed on more senior right holders. The Water Commission Act of 1913, which took effect in 1914, created California’s system of water rights and the distinction between junior and senior appropriative water rights.

The senior water rights affected by today’s notice add to the growing number of water rights restricted by the State’s ongoing drought as demand far outstrips supply in key Northern California watersheds.

The State Water Board issued two letters earlier this year warning all water-right holders that their rights may be curtailed due to drought conditions. Last year, the State Water Board issued curtailment notices to more than 5,000 diverters on five watersheds statewide.

In April and early May of this year, the State Water Board issued curtailment notices for all post-1914 water rights in the Sacramento and San Joaquin River watersheds and the Delta.  Curtailment notices were issued in the Scott River and Deer Creek watersheds as well.

In addition, the State Water Board approved a proposal from riparian water right holders in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta on May 22 to voluntarily cut back water use in exchange for assurances that they would not face enforcement actions in the event that their riparian water rights are curtailed more severely later during the June-September growing season.  Riparian water right holders had until June 1 to elect to participate in the voluntary program.

The senior water rights affected by today’s notice add to the growing number of water rights restricted by the State’s ongoing drought as demand far outstrips supply in key Northern California watersheds. As of this notice, a total of 8,721 junior water rights and 276 senior water rights in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River watersheds and Delta have been notified that there is insufficient water in the system to serve their rights.

To determine the need for curtailments, the State Water Board uses monthly diversion data and sorts that data by watershed, water right type and priority date. Water flow used for power generation that is diverted and returned back to the water course is removed from the analysis.  The demands for water use by type of right are summed and plotted graphically to display junior and senior water right needs. To assess supply, monthly and daily natural flow data from the Department of Water Resources (DWR) are plotted with DWR estimates of return flows and additional minor tributary flows. The resulting Supply vs. Demand Curve indicates curtailment is needed when demand outstrips supply.

The State Water Board maintains a webpage to assist water right holders in several key watersheds to plan for possible limits on water supply availability. The webpage, titled “Watershed Analysis,” details projected water supply, demand and availability for the watersheds most likely to face restrictions during the drought as demand outstrips available water supply.

A Curtailment Fact Sheet provides additional details on the curtailment process. Please visit our curtailment notification website to see what watersheds have received curtailment letters.

Information on the drought is available at the State Water Board’s drought website.


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