In an unusual step, state board warns water-right holders

Issue Date: March 11, 2009
Ching Lee

Farmers and ranchers who hold water right permits and licenses could lose access to the state's rivers and creeks this year if current drought conditions do not improve, the State Water Resources Control Board warned.

In a letter that went out in late February to some 7,400 water right holders in the Sacramento, San Joaquin and Russian rivers and the Central Coast and Tule Lake watersheds, the state water board said unless there is sufficient additional rainfall this season, no water will be available for many surface water diverters.

California's water supply has dwindled due to three consecutive dry years. And while recent rainfall provided some relief, the storms were not enough to lift the state's current drought status, with reservoirs far from capacity and the snowpack still below average.

The letter from the board said when there is not enough water for all users, allocations will be made in order of water right priority. In addition, it noted that it might even be necessary this year to curtail more senior water rights, such as riparian rights or pre-1914 rights, which pre-date legislation for appropriating water and do not require a permit from the state water board.

"This is notice to direct diverters that they are in the same boat as the farmers who get water service through contracts with the big State Water Project and the Central Valley Project," said Chris Scheuring, managing counsel for the California Farm Bureau Federation Natural Resources and Environmental Division.

"Just about all classes and types of agricultural water users are going to have to deal with this drought and are likely facing a very difficult water year," he said.

Not since 1988, when California was facing a similar drought, did the state water board send out warning letters to water right holders. That year, the water picture eventually improved and no curtailments were ever issued, said Bill Rukeyser, spokesman for the board.

The last time the board issued actual curtailment notices on a widespread basis was in 1977, considered the driest year in modern state history. Even then, Rukeyser said the most senior water right holders were not affected by the drought. But that doesn't mean they are safe from cutbacks this year, he warned.

"A lot of people who are high up the list may have the feeling of, 'Oh, it'll never get that bad,'" he said. "That's why we very purposely put in the letter, 'Be aware if things work out badly this year, we may have to get very high up the list.'"

He said the board sent the warning letters out in February to give agricultural water users enough time to make planting decisions or alter their normal cropping plans.

Scheuring said the letter is fair warning, particularly to water right holders who have lower priority, that the state board may later in the year tell them that there's no water available for them this year. For the more senior water right holders whose rights are not directly subject to the state board's permitting jurisdiction, Scheuring said they are also warned that if the drought worsens, they too may have to curtail diversions, although that will be more complicated and less likely.

"In my view, the letter is prudent by the state board," he said. "It hopefully is going to lead to some sound management decisions going forward about water for all classes of surface water users. And it rightly recognizes the shortages are going to be dealt with in order of seniority of the right."

Sib Fedora, a walnut farmer in Sutter County and president of the Meridian Farms Water Co., a water district, said the water board's letter did not come as a surprise because he was well aware of the state's dire water outlook.

He noted that he has received similar warning letters in the past, specifically recalling the one in the 1970s. This time around, he's more aware and prepared, he said. He drilled a well on his farm a couple of years ago so that he could have access to water when he needs it.

"We went into this with our eyes wide open, thinking this could happen," he said. "We planned our cropping based on a dry year, so we made that change last fall."

Rukeyser said the warnings in the letter should have no effect on the prospect of water marketing, provided there is actual water to sell, and that would depend on Mother Nature.

He noted that the governor has instructed the state water board to expedite handling and consideration of requests for water transfers.

If water shortages get bad enough that even junior water right holders are asked to cut back, then those with pre-1914 water rights may have "a pretty good market for water because they're the only ones left with some water," Scheuring noted.

But there shouldn't be any long-term implications to the state's letter considering how seldom it issues these warnings, he said. If the state receives adequate rainfall next year or even the rest of this year, "this letter may turn out to be not that important," he added.

Donn Zea, president and chief executive officer of the Northern California Water Association, said the letter should serve as a reminder to all California water users that the state needs to fix its antiquated and broken water system.

"We're living off the same loaf of bread that we were living off of in the early '60s," he said. "There are more demands on the system than ever before, but we've not elevated the system to meet those demands."

Taking water away from agriculture is not a solution, he added, and taking water from one part of the state to feed another is merely putting a Band-Aid on a much more serious problem.

"It just denies or ignores that problem that we've got to build more water storage," he said.

(Ching Lee is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.