Of the 9,528 junior water rights curtailment notices sent to Central Valley farmers by the State Water Resources Control Board on May 27 requiring them to stop diverting water from all streams flowing to the Sacramento and San Joaquin valleys, only 21 percent mailed back the mandated response — an indicator of local farmers’ posture towards the Board’s intervention during this drought period.
The State Water Resources Control Board is now considering also curtailing senior water rights holders — or those acquired before 1914 — and local farmers are concerned about the future of not only their farms but the state’s entire agriculture industry. In a bipartisan effort between Assemblymember Kristin Olsen (R) and Assemblymember Adam Gray (D), local farmers and water industry officials gathered at the Stanislaus County Farm Bureau to voice concerns and interface in a town hall format prior to the State Board’s meeting on July 1, which will determine if senior water rights holders will be able to keep their precedence.
“Our goal is to mobilize grass roots advocacy to fight the State Water Resources Control Board’s proposal to curtail pre-1914 water rights… and they are now moving into completely unprecedented territory in what I believe is an effort to control water rights that they have been trying to get a hold of for years now,” said Olsen. “ And they are using the drought as an excuse to do that and I believe without the expressed authority to do so.”
Olsen’s sentiment was echoed throughout the town hall forum as farmers and water experts discussed ways to fight what they see as state legislators’ political strategy to gain control of not only water rights but the agriculture industry by citing ecological concerns for reasons to impede water access.
“The thing is we have all the minimum flows, fish flows will be met in our basin, so if there are no environmental emergencies, then why are they going forward with this process?”asked Steve Knell, general manager of Oakdale Irrigation District.
“They are using environmental laws to achieve agendas that do not have your best interests at heart. They are undermining the entire agriculture industry in California,” added Paul Campbell, a director on the Modesto Irrigation District board.
Leading up to the July 1 meeting, Gray and Olsen encouraged farmers and supporters to sign letters that were available at the meeting to send to state legislators claiming that curtailing water rights is an “egregious overreach” and to consider options such as recycling, storage, and desalination. While farmers and experts each vocalized different concerns, the industry stakeholders agreed upon one thing: the importance of a united front.
“No one has a more stellar record of doing more with less than agriculture — we have more than double the output in the past 40 years with the same amount of water— but as farmers we tend to sit back and not say much but this is not the time,” said Paul Wenger, president of the California Farm Bureau Federation. “It’s not a time to hope it all works out. They want to see you fight over groundwater, they want to see you divided, but this is the time to work together.”
“They say that demand exceeds supply, therefore they have the right to curtail the water rights, but it ignores the fact that they are responsible… they are trying to keep you divided between districts and neighbors,” added Campbell.
Besides sending letters and showing strength in numbers at the July 1 decision, supporters also intend to call upon local Future Farmers of America chapters.
“FFA is a force of nature. We’ve seen them move mountains,” said Olsen.
With more than 70,000 California students in FFA, the experts aim to inspire the younger generation to utilize social media to generate a statewide conversation that extends beyond the agricultural community.