California orders hundreds of water users in San Joaquin Valley to stop drawing from rivers and streams

California officials ordered another round of sweeping water diversion cuts Friday to manage limited stream flows during the drought, this time affecting 1,634 water users in the San Joaquin River watershed.

The curtailment order by the State Water Resources Control Board requires so-called “junior” water rights holders to immediately cease drawing water directly from streams. It comes after the agency, on Wednesday, similarly restricted about 2,600 junior water rights holders in the Sacramento River watershed.

The order affects the San Joaquin River and its many tributaries, including the Stanislaus, Tuolumne and Merced rivers and numerous smaller creeks. It comes on top of cuts earlier this year to many irrigation districts in the San Joaquin Valley that do not have water rights but purchase water from the California Department of Water Resources and U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.

A water right is a state permit to divert water directly from a stream. Junior rights are those awarded after 1914, the year California adopted a broad system to regulate such diversions. Diversions that existed before 1914 are considered “senior” under the law. The curtailment order is intended to protect water supply for these senior diverters, who have a legally superior right of access to available stream flows.

“We’re at that point right now with the San Joaquin where we have to curtail the junior water rights holders,” said George Kostyrko, a spokesman for the water board. “We clearly had a lot more demand for water than we had available supply.”

In total, with Friday’s announcement, the state has now put a stopper in more than 4,200 water diversions throughout the Central Valley.

Among the agencies affected by Friday’s order is Turlock Irrigation District. Spokesman Calvin Curlin said the district now will be required to cease using its junior rights in the Tuolumne River. The district also has some senior water rights that are not affected.

“We have enough water stored to meet our current irrigation commitments to growers,” Curlin said. The district, he said, “is working with our growers to help them to use the available water as wisely as possible.”

Concerns about the drought have mounted since December, when normal seasonal storms failed to materialize. The dry trend continued through January, normally one of the wettest months of the year in California. Although February and March were wetter than average, the state could not make up the deficit, especially after two preceding dry years.

By May 1, when the state conducted its final snow survey of the year, the Sierra Nevada snowpack was down to 18 percent of average for the date, leaving precious little runoff to resupply reservoirs and keep creeks and rivers flowing.

The water board began warning as early as February that curtailing water rights might be necessary this year, so the orders rolled out this week did not surprise most water diverters. Most of the affected water users are farmers and large irrigation districts, and many have alternate supplies they can rely on, such as groundwater.

Kostyrko said the water board is prepared to make exceptions to the curtailment order for urban areas that have no other source of water. In such cases, the diverter would be allowed to continue taking water to meet minimal requirements if they can prove an essential need.

The order requires entities with junior water rights to complete a form within seven days, acknowledging the order and affirming they have stopped diverting water. Failure to comply could result in fines of $1,000 per day and $2,500 per acre-foot of diverted water.

The board also warned that curtailments could expand to include senior water rights holders as conditions worsen through the hot summer months. And that could come soon.

“It’s likely we will be issuing other curtailment notices in this watershed, as well as others, by the end of June into July,” Kostyrko said.

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