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Rare ‘curtailment’ notice underlines depth of drought

Issue Date: January 29, 2014
By Kate Campbell

As farmers and ranchers across the state assess current drought conditions, they're trying to determine what steps to take to produce a crop and raise livestock. What no one can say is how severe the drought will become and how deeply water supplies may be reduced in various parts of the state.

Uncertainties heightened last week with notice from the State Water Resources Control Board of surface water shortages and the potential for curtailment of water right diversions—including diversions by some holders of riparian and pre-1914 water rights.

"In coming weeks and months, if dry weather conditions persist, the board will notify 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 notice said.

The notice explained that in times of drought and limited supply, the most recent or junior right holder must be the first to discontinue use. Some riparian and pre-1914 water right holders may also receive a notice to stop diverting water if their diversions are downstream of reservoirs that are releasing stored water and there is no natural flow available for diversion.

Northern California Water Association President David Guy described the water board notice as both necessary and positive, in that its action gets all water users thinking about the drought and putting together plans to cope with it. Notice of the potential for curtailment of water diversions has not been issued since the drought of 1977, he said.

"Come February, there will be follow-up on the notice," Guy said. "This first notice is just a warning. Right now, there is no water in the system," which he said leaves confirmed water rights as little more than "interesting pieces of paper."

Guy said this is an important time for farmers to be in communication with water agencies that supply agricultural water, because the drought will affect different areas of the state in different ways.

The Orland-Artois Water District, which serves farmers in Glenn County and is considered a junior water rights holder, ran out of water last week, said farmer and district board president Mike Vereschagin of Orland.

"That includes CVP (Central Valley Project) contract water and purchased water from other districts," he said. "With this unprecedented drought, extensive irrigation has been occurring in December and January in orchards and winter grain and forage crops. There also has been extensive use of groundwater, along with the surface water."

In the first three weeks of irrigation in January, the district delivered more than triple the amount of water it has ever delivered for the full month of January, he said.

Almond bloom is going to be early this year and Vereschagin said if there's need for frost control before the end of February, his district has no water to deliver.

"There's great concern about how the wells will hold up," he said. "Most everyone believes wells will be going dry this year."

Well drillers are booked solid and drilling all over the state, farmers needing well work report. Growers say they're adding more and deeper wells now, not waiting until it's too late.

Turlock Irrigation District officials said the agency is assessing water supplies and will continue to plan for deliveries, but with limited resources on hand, the amount of water available has not yet been determined.

"We hope that water conditions don't get to curtailment, but if it does, we will do the best we can to get supplies to growers," said farmer Ron Macedo, who serves as TID board president. "We have pre-1914 water rights, and we have long experience with managing water in drought conditions and will be doing extensive outreach to our growers."

As it now stands, most water districts that are not settlement contractors are assuming that the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation will announce a zero water allocation this year.

The bureau, in preparing its initial 2014 water allocation announcement in late February, said last week that Lake Shasta held only 1.6 million acre-feet of water, well below the 15-year average of 2.9 million acre-feet.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has now designated 53 of California's 58 counties as natural disaster areas due to drought-related losses. Farmers in affected counties may qualify for low-interest emergency loans from the USDA Farm Service Agency.

Meanwhile, beekeepers say they're finding farmers with orchard crops are cutting back on pollination as a way to suppress fruit and nut crops and stretch water supplies through the growing season.

University of California researchers, however, urged farmers not to take aggressive actions in reducing tree size or crop load in response to water shortages this year. They said severe pruning would increase new growth, which would increase the leaf surface and evapotranspiration rates of the tree. Crop thinning has a similar effect and is also not recommended.

Crop experts said trees should thin naturally when they undergo a late-spring water stress period. In-season nitrogen applications should be reduced to prevent vigorous shoot growth, advisors said.

"There will definitely be orchards abandoned this year along with ground fallowing, even here in the northern part of the state," Vereschagin said. "Everyone has a stake in this and everyone needs to demand more water storage projects be built."

(Kate Campbell 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.

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