The severity of the current California drought has prompted the State Water Resources Control Board to vote in favor of curtailing water use for the State’s Pre-1914 water rights holders, more commonly referred to as senior water rights holders, in a move not seen since the drought of the late 1970s.
Citing an insufficient amount of available water, the State Water Board declared that the curtailment of water use from senior water rights holders with a priority date of 1903 or later as essential in the San Joaquin and Sacramento watersheds and the Delta.
Prior to this curtailment order, those with senior water rights were considered more secure and not under the jurisdiction of the State.
This comes after the State Water Board’s decision in April to curtail the water use of San Joaquin River Watershed’s junior water rights holders, which are holders who obtained water rights after the Water Commission Act of 1913, which came into effect in 1914.
Despite the fact that Turlock Irrigation District water resources analyst Herb Smart was relieved to report that this curtailment order would not affect the District, which has water rights that date back to before 1900, the District is still anticipating future curtailment orders.
“Although unlikely to affect TID water deliveries in 2015, curtailments could have a substantial impact on available water in 2016 and beyond,” said Smart. “Any curtailment order ultimately reduces the water for beneficial uses like irrigation and groundwater recharge, thus negatively impacting our region.
“TID will monitor the implement of the curtailment order to assess any potential impacts to our district and plan to vigorously defend our water rights on behalf of our customers,” added Smart.
To do this, the San Joaquin Tributaries Authority, which consists of TID, Modesto Irrigation District, Oakdale Irrigation District, Merced Irrigation District, South San Joaquin Irrigation District and the City and County of San Francisco, has already begun preparing to legally challenge the State Water Board’s decision.
“SJTA is planning to file a legal complaint in response to the State Water Board’s June 12 curtailment notice,” said Smart. “Among other items, the complaint will state that the State Water Board does not have the authority or jurisdiction to administer, oversee, or regulate riparian and pre-1914 water rights.
“We expect that many other water rights holders in the region will file similar legal challenges to this State Water Board action,” added Smart.
Although TID is safe from this round of curtailment orders, Smart reported that the District is not out of the woods yet as the State Water Board reported that it would continue to assess weekly whether or not further curtailment is necessary, with more notices appearing imminent.
“This is all part of their implementation of curtailment orders for this summer, the notice even alludes that this is the first of several priority date issues,” said Smart. “They could go further back than 1903.
“As they go further back in time, they would be getting close to the priority dates we have,” added Smart.
Senior water right holders that are affected by this curtailment order have been sent notices to stop diversions of water in order to protect more senior water rights holders and releases of previously stored water, as required to by state law.
Those who do not abide by these orders when water is not available under their date of priority could face fines up to $1,000 per day and $2,500 per acre-foot of water unlawfully diverted, cease and desist orders, or prosecution orders.
Senior water rights holders like TID which are not affected by this particular curtailment order can continue to divert water in accordance to their water rights. Additionally, the State Water Board reports that those who have previously stored water under a valid right may continue to hold that water or release it for beneficial use.
Assembly Republican Leader Kristin Olsen of Modesto released a statement in response to the Board’s curtailment, citing that although the State Water Board’s decision may have come as a shock to some, she viewed it something the Board has been planning to do for some time.
“Today’s water grab by the State Board is disappointing, but not surprising. It is one they have been eager to do for a long time and our current drought crisis gives them the cover they’ve been looking for to follow through,” said Olsen.
“Instead of making moves that will further harm our economy and food supply, the Board should expedite near- and long-term projects and policies that will increase water supply and prepare our state for future droughts,” continued Olsen.
The California Farm Bureau Federation emphasized the importance of the California water rights system, however, CFBF President Paul Wenger also stressed in a released statement the need to improve supplies.
“The water-rights system was created to deal with unreliable, and often scarce supplies, and we have scarcity that California hasn’t seen in many, many years, if ever,” said Wenger. “As the water-rights system responds to shortage in this extraordinary year, we must pursue long-term efforts to reduce the underlying scarcity that plagues us.
“With every turn of the screw as water supplies shrink, more people suffer,” continued Wenger. “Water shortages undermine rural economies, both in the short term and the long term, and these additional shortages will spread that impact to more people in more places.”
Wenger added that the solution for the severe water shortage plaguing the state must include aggressive efforts to boost resources.
“California must remove obstacles to development of new water shortage and pursue new supplies through recycling, desalination and other technologies,” said Wenger. “The spreading shortages from the current drought only underline the need to move swiftly.”
This curtailment order will affect 276 pre-1914 appropriative water rights held by 114 tights holders and will not affect any riparian right holders, which are water right holders who own land bordering a lake or stream.
Of the 276 appropriative water rights affected, 127 water rights held by 86 right holders will be curtailed on the Sacramento River, 24 water rights held by 14 right holders will be curtailed on the San Joaquin River, and 125 water rights held by 14 right holders will be curtailed in the Delta.
For these senior water right holders, the ability to fall back on more senior rights, or have water stored in reservoirs is more crucial than ever. If they do not have access to those resources, they will have to find other sources of water, including groundwater or purchased water, if available.