Emergency drought order imposed on three Tehama County creeks

In the first such action of the ongoing drought, California water officials on Wednesday adopted an emergency order that may require water rights holders on three creeks in Tehama County to reduce their diversions to protect endangered fish.

The order, adopted by the State Water Resources Control Board, affects Mill, Deer and Antelope creeks. The streams are home to some of the last wild-spawning spring-run Chinook salmon in California, as well as Central Valley steelhead trout. The order aims to preserve enough water flow so the species can survive as water flows diminish this summer.

The board acted under new powers granted by emergency drought legislation signed by Gov. Jerry Brown in March. The changes expand the board’s powers to impose emergency water diversion cuts, also called curtailments, and to impose much steeper fines for violations.

The order adopted Wednesday affects about 127 water rights holders on the three creeks, many of them small farms and ranches. The water board was told that most have already signed voluntary agreements with state and federal wildlife agencies to reduce their diversions to protect the fish.

As a result, the board revised the order to require curtailments only if the voluntary agreements don’t succeed in improving conditions for fish. This came after two days of debate in which board members, at times, appeared uncertain whether emergency action is necessary at all.

“We want to encourage more growers to enter into these agreements,” said board member Dorene D’Adamo. “We have to really think about it before we include an extra layer of protection. I think what we really should do, instead, is trust that they’ve entered into these agreements with good faith.”

The regulation still must be approved by the state’s Office of Administrative Law before it takes effect, which could take 10 days.