The negative impacts of the dry water year will be multiplied many times over if a proposal by a state agency becomes reality. It would overturn water rights held by water districts for more than 100 years.
In this water-short year, the state Department of Water Resources and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation petitioned the State Water Resources Control Board for operational flexibility to move water through the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta to protect fish and the Delta’s environment.
The board’s response surprised many. It responded with criteria that would prevent water from being diverted from the Delta for any use other than public health and safety purposes, an undefined use. All this without conducting required public hearings.
Central Valley water districts from Redding to Bakersfield will feel the effect of seeing their water rights evaporate, regardless of their water-rights category. It is inconceivable that the state board is telling water users of the federal Central Valley Project that because of the drought, they are prohibited from pumping water they have a legal right to use.
Water rights held by the San Joaquin River Exchange Contractors Water Authority stretch back to the late 1870s. These rights have enabled contractors to take water from the San Joaquin River and deliver it to 240,000 acres of the most productive farmland in California.
When federal authorities proposed the construction of Friant Dam in 1933, they needed the senior water-right holders to agree to allow their share of river water to be diverted to what is now the Friant service area. That water would be replaced, or “exchanged,” for a substitute supply from the Delta.
Unfortunately, Mother Nature did not sign that contract. This year the contractors are scheduled to receive only 40 percent of their normal allocation. But the result of the water board’s proposal will significantly reduce that allocation.
This scenario of evaporating water rights is not just a San Joaquin Valley issue. Settlement contractors in the Sacramento Valley who signed contracts to allow their water from the Sacramento River to become part of the CVP also face a loss of their water rights.
Farms are a major contributor to the economic and social well-being of many communities in California. Overturning water rights will create havoc in much of the Valley, contrary to the stated goal of assuring the public’s “health and safety.”
Why should these communities suffer when major metropolitan areas continue with their everyday life as if there is no water shortage? Likewise, why are farms the only businesses that will suffer from this loss of water rights? It just doesn’t make sense.
We already know that unplanted acreage in California would be greater than 500,000 acres this year because of low water supplies. But that will easily double if the state board takes away water rights.
Some water districts already are projecting that more than half of the acres they serve will remain unplanted this year. The balance of their acreage is planted to tree and vine crops, which also will suffer because of no water deliveries if the state board gets its way. Reports already are surfacing of insufficient groundwater supplies to keep crops alive.
The State Water Resources Control Board proposal not only affects farms, but would result in disastrous and irreparable injury to public-trust wildlife resources.
The audacity of the board to arbitrarily ignore the required process to alter water rights is a bold attempt to tell operators of the federal Central Valley Project how to go about their business.
For decades the Central Valley Project has functioned to deliver water to farms that grow an affordable and safe supply of food. And now the state board seems bent on essentially taking over these operations.
Water users and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation have a viable proposal that would allow water to continue to flow through the Delta and allow the legal delivery of water to farms while protecting water quality as well as fish and wildlife resources in the Delta. Their 60 years of experience should not be discounted.
Jim O’Banion is a cotton, corn and alfalfa farmer in Dos Palos, and chairman of the San Joaquin River Exchange Contractors Water Authority.