Water board will ease curtailments during storms


Issue Date: October 15, 2014
By Kate Campbell

Since water curtailment notices went out to junior water-right holders around California this spring, one question has been on the minds of affected farmers and ranchers: How and when will the curtailments be lifted? Farmers and ranchers have seen water supplies cut because of severe drought and want to know how soon the curtailments might end, once rain and snow return.

Although curtailments are not being lifted entirely, now the State Water Resources Control Board is offering a glimmer of hope. It issued a new policy last week that allows, under strict conditions, for depleted livestock and irrigation ponds to be replenished by capturing excess stream flows—should they occur this fall and winter.

The water board has not said when curtailments might be permanently removed, but it said the interim plan will allow curtailed water-right holders in the Sacramento, San Joaquin, Russian and Eel river watersheds to take advantage of any significant early rains that increase excess stream flows. More than 9,000 water-right holders in the four watersheds saw their rights curtailed beginning last June, when supplies started to hit historically low levels.

California water rights law, which is based on seniority, requires that junior water right holders—those with more recent water rights—stop their diversions if there is not enough water in rivers and streams to meet all of the demand.

In announcing the interim plan, the board noted in a prepared statement that early storms—which may not provide enough precipitation to permanently lift curtailments in these watersheds—do offer important, but limited, opportunities to capture rainwater that otherwise would pass through a watershed on its way to the ocean.

Mendocino County farmer Peter Bradford, who has diversified livestock, timber and crop operations in some of the eligible watersheds, said he's "wrapping up production for this year and looking to the future, which means we're hoping for rain. It's very dry in our area and it has been over 95 degrees in recent days."

Two storms in September brought about an inch of rain to his part of the state, which helped sprout some grass for grazing, he said, "but the creeks and springs are so low there's barely enough to water the livestock.

"We have to move water from one place to another using tanks in pickups, which is tedious," Bradford said. "We're importing hay and supplementing with spent brewers grain from a nearby brewery to feed our cow-calf pairs. That's how we're getting through."

Under the revised curtailment criteria, water right holders who have been unable to divert or store water in the state's northern watersheds since curtailments went into effect will be able to do so on a temporary, limited basis. The water board said water right holders will be notified in real time of temporary relaxations of curtailments.

The water board's decision only relaxes curtailment notices for post-1914 water right permit and license holders with small stockponds, as well as domestic and irrigation ponds, because the board said it believes there will be minimal or no harm to those with prior rights, said Danny Merkley, California Farm Bureau Federation water resources director.

"But if there are complaints they will have to investigate, which could jeopardize this opportunity," Merkley said. "That's why daily recording of diversion amounts will be required. That's why online notifications to turn on and off in real time are critical to ensuring this policy works as intended."

To facilitate real-time notification, the water board will post notices on its website and electronically notify those who subscribe to the notification server. The relaxation of curtailments does not apply to any other permit or license requirements or conditions.

From a practical standpoint, Merkley said hard-copy notifications mailed or faxed to water-right holders would likely be received too late for meaningful action.

"That's why—and I can't stress this enough—only electronic notifications will be sent," Merkley said.

It's getting cooler at night on the North Coast now, Bradford said, "which means the trees aren't transpiring as much, and that means more water in the streams. Flows have picked up.

"We hope for a very nice, wet winter," he said. "However, all the forecasts I've seen don't predict any significant rain before the end of October. So I'm very concerned about next year. Let's just say I'm crossing my fingers and hoping for rain."

If water-right holders with post-1914 water right permits and licenses have not received a letter from the state water board, they should contact the board. The letter can be viewed at www.swrcb.ca.gov/waterrights/water_issues/programs/drought/docs/curtail_lift.pdf.

The letter also lists website addresses with additional information.

To sign up for email notifications on the status of curtailments, go to www.waterboards.ca.gov/resources/email_subscriptions/swrcb_subscribe.shtml.

(Kate Campbell is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at kcampbell@cfbf.com.)

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