By Vicky Boyd
The California Water Resources Control Board in a March 22 letter warned roughly 40,000 water rights holders of potential water shortages this summer due to continued dry conditions.
San Joaquin Farm Bureau President David Strecker, who farms row crops in the Delta, said he fears the letters are a preview of things to come.
“The writing’s on the wall of what we’re going to be hearing out of Sacramento,” he said.
While below-average precipitation and runoff will no doubt influence decisions about pumping curtailments, Strecker said he wouldn’t rule out politics also coming into play.
“I think one factor that will be interesting as it plays out is there’s a recall attempt happening against the governor,” he said. “Will politics affect their decision?”
Erik Ekdahl, deputy director of the water board’s Division of Water Rights, said it’s still too early to say whether water diversion curtailments would be imposed this year because the hydrology is still developing. He pointed to the large storm that hit the state in May 2020 as reason for not yet making final decisions.
That said, precipitation and runoff conditions this water year are tracking closely to the 2014-2015 water year.
In May 2015, the water board sent curtailment notices to 9,000 holders of what it calls junior, or post-1914, water rights.
Talk of urban water-use restrictions prompted farmers in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta with riparian rights to voluntarily give up 25% of their water in late May 2015. In return, the state assured them it would not seek further reductions.
Riparian water rights allow those along a river to pump what they need to put to beneficial uses.
A month later in June 2015, the state sent cease-and-desist orders to diverters with senior water rights that dated back between 1914 and 1903 as well as riparian rights holders.
Considered a benchmark, 1914 is when the Legislature passed the Water Commission Act, which established a water rights permitting system. The State Water Resources Control Board now administers the system.
Before December 1914, when the act took effect, appropriative water rights simply required posting and recording a notice of intent to divert the water and construction of diversion facilities. Those early diverters are considered to have pre-1914 water rights, which are the last to be curtailed because they are senior to more recent, or junior, water rights.
Will history repeat itself in 2015?
Whether the 2021 season results in restrictions similar to 2015 is unknown. As of April 23, the southern part of San Joaquin County is rated as severe drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. The county’s northern portion is rated as extreme drought.
Stanislaus, Merced, Madera and Kings counties and the western portion of Fresno County are rated as severe drought, while many counties in the Sacramento Valley are rated as extreme drought.
“The initial forecast is that we will need some level of notices of unavailability this summer,” Ekdahl said. “We don’t know the timetable. We’re continuing to figure it out as quickly as possible. Our initial assessment is we do not believe those notices would extend to the pre-1914 right.”
Based on very preliminary calculations, he said curtailment notices would likely be basin wide, covering both the Sacramento and San Joaquin river basins.
Mary Hildebrand, who farms in the Delta, said she hoped the state learned from 2015. “I’m less worried about that in the Delta because they learned from the voluntary cutbacks that they asked people to do in the Delta,” said Hildebrand, who sits on the South Delta Water Agency board. “(The cutbacks) didn’t make a difference in the Delta water levels because we’re in the tidal zone. The cutbacks don’t actually result in higher levels in the water channels. It can affect water quality but not water levels.”
The Delta watermaster, who oversees water rights administration, has attended South Delta Water Agency meetings, but she said no decision has been made on any reductions in river pumping. “We’re always in discussions with the watermaster,” she said.
March 22 warning letter
In its March 22 letter, the State Water Board encouraged water rights holder to begin planning for potential water supply shortages. Among the suggestions were increasing water conservation, reducing irrigated acreage, managing herd size, using innovative irrigation and monitoring technologies, and diversifying water supplies. That could include increasing use of groundwater for this season, Ekdahl said.
Strecker said fallowing ground could be a possible water-saving option for row-crop producers, but those with permanent crops don’t have that flexibility.
“Obviously, if you’re someone who’s growing row crops, you might make some decisions based off that,” he said. “But with the amount of permanent crops in all areas of the county, your decision is really you have to water your crop.”
Hildebrand said she also worries about the effects water cutbacks could have on the county. “I’m sure it will have a lot of impact on our county as you get farther upstream, and the effect on areas is going to be pretty extreme. It’s not good,” she said.
When the water board issued cease-and-desist orders in 2015, diverters filed suit, claiming the state had not followed due process and had not given them a chance to speak at a hearing. The state eventually backed down.
Should the state issue curtailment notices and need to hold hearings this season, Strecker said he didn’t know how COVID safety protocols would affect public input.
“When you look at the way a lot of the things have been handled during COVID, we kind of been in the dark with several large projects – trains, tunnels,” he said. “Are they going to use COVID as a reason why they can’t allow the public to speak? Even if it’s something that you’re interested in, Zoom meetings are difficult to get the full story and true communication that take place.”