Drought plunges state into more regulatory action
By Kate Campbell
As California sinks deeper into drought, officials are taking an increased number of actions to protect dwindling water supplies. In addition to requiring a 25 percent overall cutback in municipal water use, the state began building an emergency salinity barrier on the San Joaquin River in Contra Costa County last week, to prevent saltwater intrusion that could threaten freshwater supplies—an action last taken in 1977.
Next week, the State Water Resources Control Board holds a public workshop to take comment on its drought-related activities, which have included a cutoff of water diversions by water right holders—known as curtailments—and the likelihood of additional action.
"This is the drought of the century, with greater impact than anything our parents and grandparents experienced, and we have to act accordingly," board chairwoman Felicia Marcus said. "We have to face the reality that this drought may continue and prepare as if that's the case."
A 25 percent savings in potable urban water use amounts to more than 1.2 million acre-feet of water during the next nine months, the water board estimated. The emergency regulation sets a target water use of 55 gallons per person, per day, and notes that 50 percent of total residential water use is outdoors—in some cases, up to 80 percent.
The mandatory cut in municipal water use could have had a more damaging impact on small farms that rely on municipal water supplies, but the San Diego County Farm Bureau, California Farm Bureau Federation and others helped convince the water board to allow municipal water districts delivering water to commercial agriculture to subtract the amount of agricultural water delivered from their urban conservation requirements. Under the emergency regulation adopted by the board, those districts will have to reduce usage by commercial agriculture by an amount to be determined by local agencies.
San Diego County Farm Bureau Executive Director Eric Larson said that under the board's original proposal, farmers in the county who buy water from municipal agencies faced water reductions ranging from 20 percent to as high as 38 percent, but will now see less-stringent cuts.
In San Diego County, he said, "we expect that local decision to be in the 15 percent range that our farmers will have to reduce, so that's a big difference from 38 percent."
Many farmers served by municipal water agencies had already made dramatic strides in water efficiency in recent years, in response to earlier water cutbacks and rising rates. San Diego County is one place where many farmers buy high-cost, potable water. Agricultural water analysts say other farm users might not have been directly affected by the board's emergency regulation, in cases where those users buy "raw" or untreated water or use groundwater or other local sources rather than potable water from an urban supplier.
The water board announced it will hold its public workshop on drought actions in Sacramento on May 20. The workshop will provide the public an opportunity to comment on subjects that include the "temporary urgency change petition" process associated with modifications to state and federal water project operations, the emergency rock barrier being built in the delta, various drought-related curtailment actions taken in recent weeks, and potential, additional curtailments in the weeks to come.
Already, thousands of California farms and ranches with junior water rights have been ordered to stop diverting water as the growing season advances. The state water board has warned, however, that further cutoffs are coming—including possible curtailment of senior water rights.
"Farmers and ranchers should expect additional curtailments, but there are legal issues as to who may order those cuts and whether the state water board has authority to send cease-and-desist orders for legal diversions by pre-1914 water right holders, among other uncertainties," said Chris Scheuring, CFBF environmental attorney.
Representatives of pre-1914 and riparian water-right holders have argued that these rights are not within the state water board's jurisdiction, because the rights were established before the board was formed. However, observers say there is uncertainty as to whether the board's emergency powers grant it authority it would not otherwise possess.
Hydrographs prepared by the board using data from flow gauges in the Sacramento and San Joaquin river watersheds project that there will be little "natural flow" through the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta within a few weeks—meaning water in the river channels likely will be primarily from released reservoir storage that includes flows to meet legal demands.
"The hydrology is severe—as bad as we've ever seen—but curtailment of senior water-right holders is without precedent," Scheuring said. "Still, the curtailment process based on the seniority system is time-tested and has shown it functions in dry years, as well as wet ones.
"We've never been in this place before," he continued. "We've never gone this deep into the ranking of water rights seniority, at least on anything near this scale."
In a broad sense, curtailment of junior right holders, which occurred both in 2014 and this year, can be expected in dry years and is "legally unremarkable," Scheuring said, "but that doesn't take away from the fact that the drought is severe and farmers and ranchers are struggling."
"If anything, this crisis underscores the need for more water supplies," he said. "Farm Bureau continues to press for new storage and other supply enhancements that will add to the system, so we don't continue to find ourselves in this situation in the future."
Additional information concerning state water board drought activities can be found at http://www.waterboards.ca.gov/waterrights/water_issues/programs/drought/index.shtml">www.waterboards.ca.gov/waterrights/water_issues/programs/drought/index.shtml.
(Kate Campbell is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at email@example.com"">mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org">email@example.com. Ag Alert editor Dave Kranz contributed to this story.)
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