Water & Drought

California cuts more water rights, including San Francisco’s

State regulators on Friday told San Francisco to stop taking some of the river water it routinely stores in the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir.
State regulators on Friday told San Francisco to stop taking some of the river water it routinely stores in the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir. The Modesto Bee

In an order that cuts into a small portion of San Francisco’s water supply, California’s drought regulators on Friday told more farmers and other users to stop pumping water from the state’s rivers and streams.

With the drought worsening, the State Water Resources Control Board issued the “curtailment orders” to a combined 16 holders of so-called senior water rights on the Merced and upper San Joaquin rivers. Some of the rights go as far back as 1858.

In addition, the water board said it sent a curtailment order to the city of San Francisco for rights it holds to pull water from the Tuolumne River dating to 1903. The state agency acknowledged that it should have curtailed those rights two weeks ago, when it delivered orders to those holding water rights from 1903 or later. The first round of notices spared San Francisco only because the city’s water rights had been entered incorrectly in the water board’s database.

Friday’s order doesn’t pose a huge problem to San Francisco’s overall water supply. The city takes water from multiple sources, including Hetch Hetchy Reservoir, which is 95 percent full. Nonetheless, San Francisco is participating in a lawsuit challenging the state’s authority to curtail senior rights.

“The practical effect of a curtailment would be negligible,” said Steven Ritchie, assistant general manager of San Francisco Public Utilities Commission. “The precedential effect is what concerns us.”

The water board said the latest batch of notices won’t be the last. “It is expected that more senior rights will be impacted by limited water availability,” the agency announced.

Water rights in California are generally based on how long the person has been diverting the water, and senior rights – those held prior to 1914, when the system was formally established – have been considered largely immune to curtailment. Until this year, California had curtailed pre-1914 rights only once, during the drought of 1977.

Four primarily agricultural districts sued the state last week, saying the water board didn’t have the power to curtail senior rights. Among the plaintiffs is an umbrella group through which San Francisco holds its rights to the Tuolumne.

A fifth district sued Friday, the Byron-Bethany Irrigation District, which irrigates 6,300 acres of grapes, almonds and other crops. It also is the sole source for the 12,000 residents of Mountain House, a San Joaquin Valley suburb being developed by the California Public Employees’ Retirement System. Mountain House is working on a deal for a six-month backup water supply.

In its lawsuit, Byron-Bethany said more than $65 million in crops will die if the state’s order is enforced. “The curtailment notice is nothing short of catastrophic,” said district President Russell Kagehiro in a press release.

Dale Kasler: 916-321-1066, @dakasler

Related stories from Sacramento Bee