Water & Drought

Some California farmers get OK to use water again

Irrigation pipes sit along a dried-up canal on a farm field near Stockton.
Irrigation pipes sit along a dried-up canal on a farm field near Stockton. The Associated Press

California’s drought regulators Friday lifted water restrictions on a select group of Sacramento Valley and Delta farmers with senior water rights.

The decision by the State Water Resources Control Board doesn’t signal an easing of the drought. Rather, it means that as growing season ends for most farmers, water consumption is tailing off and the streams have more supply.

“It’s a seasonal thing,” said Kathy Mrowka, enforcement program manager at the state board. “Agricultural water use has declined. There’s now sufficient in-stream flow.”

The decision affects 238 different water rights on the Sacramento and Feather river watersheds, as well as the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. Those holders have pre-1914 “senior” rights that date as far back as 1903, and had their rights curtailed in a dramatic move June 12. It marked the first time since 1977 that California had curtailed any senior rights.

Mrowka stressed that other rights holders remain under curtailment orders, including thousands of farmers and others with post-1914 “junior” rights.

“We haven’t had major rain events where we could do a general release,” she said.

The practical effect of Friday’s order is probably somewhat limited; it won’t do much for this year’s harvest in most cases but will improve farm fields and orchards as they get ready for the dormant season, said Mike Wade of the California Farm Water Coalition.

“It’s too late for this year’s crop,” he said. Still, “I think it’s positive and we’re grateful for that.”

The curtailment orders put a spotlight on California’s hodgepodge rights system. Generally speaking, rights are based on who’s been using the water the longest. Those who have been pulling water from the rivers since before 1914, when the state established its formal rights system, have some of the strongest rights.

The laws remain murky, however, and several agricultural districts went to court to challenge the state’s authority over the pre-1914 rights. The cases are pending.

Dale Kasler: 916-321-1066, @dakasler