Cal­i­for­nia or­ders wa­ter cuts across swath of prime agri­cul­tural land


As Cal­i­for­nia grap­ples with a re­lent­less drought, state reg­u­la­tors 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 iron-clad wa­ter rights.

The wa­ter­ways tar­geted Fri­day in the or­der by the State Wa­ter Re­sources Con­trol Board pro­vide wa­ter to farms and cities in the agri­cul­tural- 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.

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.

“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.

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 per­cent cut like im­posed on ur­ban. This is a 100 per­cent 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.”

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