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More restrictions hit state’s water supplies

Issue Date: July 8, 2015
By Kate Campbell
New Melones Reservoir on the Stanislaus River held only 17 percent of its capacity—or about 26 percent of its average for the date—when this photo was taken, July 3.
Photo/Dave Kranz
Once-submerged trees emerge in New Melones Reservoir on the Stanislaus River, where water storage has shrunk to less than 17 percent of capacity.
Photo/Dave Kranz

As water supplies deteriorate around California, already-tight supplies are being cut further, some water-right holders are challenging curtailment of their supplies, agencies continue to assess the impact of unforeseen restrictions on Lake Shasta, and members of Congress are promoting legislation intended to make the state's water more reliable.

"The water situation continues to become more critical for many California farms and ranches, as water supplies become more restricted," California Farm Bureau Federation President Paul Wenger said, in announcing the organization's support for legislation introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives at the end of June.

"There's no time to waste," Wenger said, referring to a series of events that underscored the severe water shortages facing many parts of California.

For example, the State Water Resources Control Board has been issuing a stream of curtailment orders to senior water right holders to stop diversions.

Last week, the agency ordered diversions halted on the Merced River for senior water rights dating back to 1858; it also issued curtailments for all pre-1914 and post-1914 appropriative rights on the Upper San Joaquin River.

The announcements affected 16 water rights held by 11 owners. A curtailment notice was also sent to the city of San Francisco for four appropriative water rights on the Tuolumne River, dating back to 1903.

Officials said curtailment notices previously were sent to senior water rights holders during the 1976-77 drought, but they did not extend as broadly then as this year.

As of June 26, a total of 8,721 junior water rights and 297 senior water rights in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River watersheds and delta had been notified that there is insufficient water in the system to serve their rights.

CFBF Water Resources Director Danny Merkley urged right holders who receive curtailment notices to respond to all official notices when required to do so. He advised recipients of curtailment notices to ask for clarification of difficult-to-understand, bureaucratic language and official orders, to avoid what he called "complicated and costly misunderstandings."

"As supplies continue to decline through the summer, it's expected more senior rights will be impacted by limited water availability," the water board said in a statement announcing the latest round of cuts, adding that curtailments will be lifted in the autumn by priority of right as soon as appropriate.

Several irrigation districts are now challenging in court the curtailment of pre-1914 water rights—rights established before the state water board was created—saying the board doesn't have the authority to restrict these senior rights.

A miscalculation of water temperatures in Shasta Lake now casts doubt that a number of pending water transfer agreements can be fulfilled.

That unanticipated problem has the potential to create crop losses of $3.5 billion to $4.5 billion and lead to fallowing of an additional 485,000 acres, the California Farm Water Coalition said, citing estimates from water agencies in the Sacramento and San Joaquin valleys.

Releases from Shasta, the main reservoir serving the federal Central Valley Project, will be cut by about half of average for this time of year. Water retained behind the dam will be used to cool Sacramento River temperatures and support spawning by federally protected fall- and winter-run chinook salmon.

Sacramento River settlement contractors, who'd agreed to transfer water to farmers in need, will not have the water they'd contracted in advance to sell.

"Crops were planted with promises made for water deliveries," Farm Bureau's Merkley said, "but because of miscalculations, some crops with significant investment may not make it to harvest."

As of Sunday, Shasta held 60 percent of its historic storage for the date, or 48 percent of capacity. Lake Oroville, the main reservoir for the State Water Project, stood at 48 percent of average and 38 percent of capacity.

The period from now until Sept. 30 usually brings the heaviest demand on stored water supplies.

"We need solutions to this crisis and assurances that we are taking steps to ensure future supply reliability," Wenger said. "Californians and all Americans depend on the food and farm products grown in our state, and we all benefit from policies that add flexibility to California water management."

Wenger said CFBF supports federal water legislation introduced in the House—the Western Water and American Food Security Act of 2015.

"California's drought has devastated communities throughout the Central Valley and now the consequences are extending throughout the country," said Rep. David Valadao, R-Hanford, who introduced the legislation.

HR 2898 is designed to modernize water policies in California and throughout the western U.S. and make water supplies more reliable. It's supported by the entire California Republican delegation, the chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee and the chairman of the Western Caucus.

Wenger said Farm Bureau supports efforts to give water managers more options for benefiting protected fish species while maximizing water supplies for human needs. He also expressed support for a provision in the bill that would expedite federal studies of California water storage projects.

"Federal policies must move from fish-first priorities to a balanced program that seeks new ways to meet the needs of both people and protected species," Wenger said.

"As our current drought proves, it's time to move water storage projects from the drawing board to the construction stage," he said. "Accelerating storage projects just makes sense in a time of uncertainty about long-term weather patterns. The more places we have to store rain and snow when it falls, the better we'll be able to withstand the inevitable dry times."

Wenger also encouraged the California congressional delegation to cooperate closely on water legislation.

"All of California suffers from the impacts of drought, and we hope our congressional representatives from both parties and all regions can work together to address the federal government's role in easing the drought's impacts," Wenger said. "This bill is a good starting point."

(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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