California’s ‘relentless’ drought has taken a dire turn

Fenit Nirappil and Scott Smith, Associated Press
Jun. 12, 2015

California drought
Horacio Cisneros spays spa water in a backyard before removing the spa, in Lake Elsinore, California. As residents struggle to reduce potable water consumption by 25%, the California Pool and Spa Association is aggressively trying to quash proposed bans on filling pools and spas.

As California grapples with a relentless drought, state regulators on Friday ordered farmers and others who hold some of the strongest water rights in the state to stop all pumping from three major waterways in one of country’s prime farm regions.

The order involving record cuts by senior water rights holders in the Sacramento, San Joaquin, and delta watersheds followed mandatory water curtailment earlier this year to cities and towns and to farmers with less ironclad water rights.

The waterways targeted Friday in the order by the State Water Resources Control Board provide water to farms and cities in the agriculture-rich Central Valley and beyond.

Economists and agriculture experts say growing of some crops will shift in the short-term to regions with more water, so the water cuts are expected to have little immediate impact on food prices.

The curtailment order applies to 114 entities — including individual landowners and water districts serving farmers and small communities — with claims dating back to 1914 or before.

It will force thousands of water users in the state to tap groundwater, buy water at rising costs, use previously stored water, or go dry.

“It’s going to be a different story for each one of them, and a struggle for all of them,” Thomas Howard, executive director of the water board, acknowledged.

There are several thousand senior rights holders who are the last to have their water rights curtailed in times of scarcity.

The people and entities that were cut off on Friday are the first of many senior right holders who will see curtailments in the coming weeks.

It’s the first time since a 1977 drought that California has directed a significant number of senior water rights holders to stop pumping because of drought and amounts to the most widespread cuts ever among those with some of the state’s strongest water rights.

California water law was built around preserving the water rights of those who staked claims to waterways more than a century ago or have property that abuts the rivers and streams.

Water regulators had spared the senior rights holders until now but warn that still more cuts will be coming for farmers and others in weeks to follow.

People ordered Friday to cut back have water rights going back to 1903. Officials say they have rights to an estimated 1.2 million acre-feet for a year — more than a dozen times San Francisco’s annual use — but the officials do not know how much the curtailments will save this summer.

“We are now at the point where demand in our system is outstripping supply for even the most senior water rights holders,” said Caren Trgovcich, chief deputy director of the water board.

Farmers and water districts have promised court battles to stop what are the broadest incursions on record to the water allotted to senior rights holders.

California Drought Go_Mill (1)
AP Photo/Chris Carlson, FileIn this April 3, 2015 photo, lush green golf courses border the edge of the desert in Palm Springs, California. Pressed by the fourth year of bone-dry weather and the threat of state-mandated water cuts, some of the poshest courses in California are ceding back to nature some of their manicured greenery, installing high-tech moisture monitoring systems and letting the turf they don’t rip up turn just a little bit brown.

Jeanne Zolezzi, an attorney for two small irrigation districts serving farmers in the San Joaquin area, says she plans to go to court next week to stop the board’s action.

She said her clients include small family farms that grow permanent crops such as apricots and walnuts, and have no back-up supplies in wells or reservoirs.

“A lot of trees would die, and a lot of people would go out of business,” said Zolezzi. “We are not talking about a 25% cut like imposed on urban. This is a 100% cut, no water supplies.”

Jonas Minton, an adviser at the private Planning and Conservation League environmental group, said droughts of this scale are not unprecedented in California.

What is different, he said, is that the state has grown to a population of 38 million and has vast acres of farmland to irrigate. He said state bureaucrats or environmentalists can’t be blamed.

“Today’s curtailments are not being done by choice,” Minton said. “They’re a reaction to the reality of the shrinking water supply.”