Com­mu­nity at risk of los­ing all wa­ter in days

Los Angeles Times - - CALIFORNIA - By Matt Stevens

When the state last week took the rare step of cur­tail­ing the wa­ter rights of more than 100 ir­ri­ga­tion dis­tricts and grow­ers, it ap­peared that agri­cul­tural ar­eas would be the hard­est hit.

But now, an up­scale master-planned com­mu­nity of 15,000 res­i­dents in San Joaquin County is fac­ing the loss of all wa­ter sup­plies within days — prompt­ing a fran­tic search for new sources.

Un­like the vast ma­jor­ity of com­mu­ni­ties in Cal­i­for­nia, Moun­tain House pur­chases all its wa­ter from a sin­gle ru­ral ir­ri­ga­tion dis-

trict. And that agency was cov­ered by the state’s or­der cur­tail­ing wa­ter rights for some of those who have held them for more than a cen­tury due to the state’s wors­en­ing drought.

There has been fear in the com­mu­nity that the taps could run dry. But the sit­u­a­tion is not quite that dire.

Even if Moun­tain House can’t find a new sup­plier, the state could al­low the lo­cal ir­ri­ga­tion dis­trict to de­liver just enough to main­tain “health and safety” in the com­mu­nity, ac­cord­ing to a let­ter from the State Wa­ter Re­sources Con­trol Board.

Still, of­fi­cials in the town near Tracy say that mil­lions of dol­lars in land­scap­ing and thou­sands of acres of crops are at risk.

“If we’re un­able to pro­cure sup­ple­men­tal sup­plies, it’ll be cat­a­strophic,” said Rick Gil­more, gen­eral man­ager of the By­ron Bethany Ir­ri­ga­tion Dis­trict, which sup­plies Moun­tain House with its wa­ter. “Even if we are suc­cess­ful, I don’t know how much wa­ter we’re go­ing to be able to ac­quire to ful­fill our needs.… Some folks are go­ing to feel the pain.”

The ef­fects of the drought have been acutely felt across the Cen­tral Val­ley in places such as East Porter­ville, where ground­wa­ter lev­els have plum­meted and wells and faucets have run dry.

But ex­perts said sur­face wa­ter re­stric­tions, like the one Moun­tain House faces, show just how bad the drought has be­come in its fourth year.

“This is, of course, ev­ery wa­ter sup­plier’s night­mare,” said Bar­ton H. “Buzz” Thompson, a wa­ter law pro­fes­sor at Stan­ford Univer­sity. “We all have come to be­lieve that in Cal­i­for­nia, when you turn on the faucet, wa­ter is go­ing to come out of it.”

Moun­tain House learned of its pre­car­i­ous sit­u­a­tion last week when the state wa­ter board an­nounced the “se­nior rights” cur­tail­ment.

A no­tice is­sued by the wa­ter board com­manded the By­ron Bethany Ir­ri­ga­tion Dis­trict to “im­me­di­ately stop di­vert­ing wa­ter.” It gave the dis­trict seven days to sub­mit a com­pli­ance form.

The board can fine a wa­ter user $1,000 to $10,000 per day for vi­o­lat­ing the cur­tail­ment or­der or sub­se­quent “cease and de­sist” or­ders is­sued by reg­u­la­tors.

The dis­trict will keep sup­ply­ing wa­ter to the town “un­til we have had the op­por­tu­nity to fully eval­u­ate the cur­tail­ment no­tice,” said Gil­more, adding that it is also con­sid­er­ing lit­i­ga­tion to pro­tect its wa­ter rights.

In ad­di­tion to Moun­tain House, about 160 lo­cal farm­ers are af­fected by the cur­tail­ment or­der, Gil­more said.

With­out wa­ter, the area would lose al­most 10,000 acres of al­monds, cher­ries, sweet corn, grapes, toma­toes, wal­nuts and other crops, he said.

In Moun­tain House, lawns, shrub­bery, parks and ath­letic fields are at risk, said Ed­win Pat­ti­son, gen­eral man­ager of the Moun­tain House Com­mu­nity Ser­vices Dis­trict.

If it loses its wa­ter sup­ply, Moun­tain House could be forced to draw down its stor­age in a few days and then be with­out wa­ter, Pat­ti­son said.

But “that’s the worstcase sce­nario,” Pat­ti­son added, say­ing that he be­lieves he will be able to find another wa­ter sup­plier with older wa­ter rights that has wa­ter in stor­age that it can sell.

“The re­al­ity is we’re go­ing to get some wa­ter sup­ply,” he said. “The ques­tion is: Is it go­ing to be enough to main­tain per­ma­nent land­scap­ing or are we go­ing to lose tens of mil­lions of dol­lars of value that sup­ports the aes­thet­ics of this com­mu­nity?”

If Pat­ti­son fails to find other wa­ter, the com­mu­nity and the ir­ri­ga­tion dis­trict could ne­go­ti­ate with the wa­ter board to keep wa­ter flow­ing.

In its let­ter to the ir­ri­ga­tion dis­trict, the board ac­knowl­edged that “some wa­ter users must com­ply with di­rec­tives … to pro­vide con­tin­ued wa­ter ser­vice to meet min­i­mum health and safety stan­dards.” It prom­ises to “care­fully an­a­lyze” wa­ter de­liv­er­ies for that pur­pose “on a case-by-case ba­sis.”

Ge­orge Kostyrko, a spokesman for the state wa­ter board, said state reg­u­la­tors “should not spec­u­late at this time” on how it will deal with the Moun­tain House sit­u­a­tion.

“We don’t have enough in­for­ma­tion on their spe­cific sit­u­a­tion,” he said in an email.

The fact that the wa­ter board de­cided to cur­tail some of the old­est wa­ter rights in Cal­i­for­nia shows just how se­vere the drought has be­come, Thompson said. Reg­u­la­tors are slowly mov­ing to­ward “a stage where there isn’t any wa­ter for any­one to take,” he said.

But he is also skep­ti­cal that the state would leave Moun­tain House with­out any wa­ter.

“Ul­ti­mately,” Thompson said, “public health and safety takes prece­dence over tech­ni­cal wa­ter rights.”

As it hap­pens, Moun­tain House is a few miles from Clifton Court Fore­bay, which holds wa­ter de­liv­er­ies to South­ern Cal­i­for­nia and the San Joaquin Val­ley that have also been dras­ti­cally cut this year.

“We’re stand­ing here at the heart of Cal­i­for­nia wa­ter and we’re out of wa­ter,” Pat­ti­son said. “We’re go­ing to have to stand here, pos­si­bly with no taps f low­ing, and watch it pass by.”

Robert Durell Los An­ge­les Times

YOUTHS PLAY bas­ket­ball in Moun­tain House, which gets wa­ter from one ru­ral ir­ri­ga­tion dis­trict.

Robert Durell Los An­ge­les Times

MOUN­TAIN HOUSE, near Tracy, Calif., could re­ceive just enough wa­ter to main­tain “health and safety” even if it can’t find a new sup­plier.

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