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California curtails senior water rights for farmers, others

In a dramatic move that reflects the severity of the drought, California water regulators Friday ordered farmers and others with some of the oldest water rights in the state to stop pulling water out of California’s rivers.

The action by the State Water Resources Control Board, after weeks of warnings, affects 114 different water-rights holders in the Sacramento and San Joaquin river watersheds, as well as the Delta region. Officials said even more curtailment orders are likely in the weeks to come as demand increases and supplies dwindle.

“It’s not even summer,” said the board’s executive director, Tom Howard. “We’re going to be doing further curtailments.” It’s the first time since the drought of 1977 that the state has curtailed so-called senior water rights.

Howard acknowledged, however, that it isn’t clear how much water will actually be saved by Friday’s order. Plenty of water rights holders, anticipating Friday’s action, have been storing water in reservoirs, and that supply is off limits to regulators. “Stored water is...essentially the property of the person who stored it,” Howard said.

But he said he believes Friday’s order will bring more pain to water users, particularly farmers. “There will be some land ending up being fallowed as a result,” he said.

Customers of the federal Central Valley Project and the State Water Project, the two mammoth man-made delivery systems that bring water from north to south, have lost about one third of their water this year. It’s estimated that more than 500,000 acres of farmland will sit idle.

The reaction from agriculture was swift. “With every turn of the screw as water supplies shrink, more people suffer,” said Paul Wenger, president of the California Farm Bureau Federation, in a prepared statement. “Water shortages undermine rural economies, both in the short term and the long term, and these additional shortages will spread that impact to more people in more places.”

Generally speaking, senior rights holders are those who established a claim before California established a formal rights system in 1914. Earlier this year, the state curtailed the rights of more than 9,000 “junior” rights holders, those who established a claim after 1914.

Friday’s order doesn’t affect those whose rights existed before 1903. The city of San Francisco, for instance, holds water rights that date to 1901 and is unaffected.

But officials said that as more curtailment orders come, the water board will be targeting those with very early rights.

Separately, the water board has been sued over Gov. Jerry Brown’s order requiring urban areas to cut water use, presenting a fresh challenge to the state’s efforts to cope with the drought.

The city of Riverside sued the board last week, demanding a court order blocking regulators’ implementation of the governor’s order, which took effect June 1.

Brown ordered a 25 percent reduction in urban water usage over the next nine months, when compared to 2013 consumption. As implemented by the water board, the order varies widely according to prior consumption patterns, and Riverside has been told to cut its water use by 28 percent.

The city says it has plenty of groundwater, isn’t facing a shortage, and should have been placed in the 4 percent category –the lowest of the nine tiers set up by the state.

“Riverside currently imports no water from Northern California and is wholly dependent upon local groundwater to serve the needs of its customers,” says the city’s suit, filed in Fresno Superior Court. “Riverside has invested a significant amount of time and money to be water independent.”

Riverside’s suit is being viewed sympathetically in parts of Sacramento, where some local water agencies argued to be placed in lower conservation tiers because of their own ample groundwater supplies. Because of its heavy outdoor watering, the Sacramento area is among the regions in the state hardest hit by the water board’s rules, with most facing cutbacks of 28 percent or more.

“It’s exactly what we’re saying,” said Tom Gray, general manager of the Fair Oaks Water District. Fair Oaks was placed in the 36 percent category, the most stringent of all, even though it’s invested more than $5 million in the past nine years to drill new walls and enhance its water security.

“We’re disappointed that our multimillion-dollar planning has gone for naught,” Gray said.

Nonetheless, Gray said the city doesn’t plan to sue.

The state water board wouldn’t comment on the Riverside suit. In its deliberations last month, the board rejected the idea of letting cities use their groundwater supplies in order to get themselves placed in the 4 percent conservation category. It said those cities should hang onto their groundwater in case the drought gets even worse.

“Groundwater for many areas is the savings account available during times of drought,” the agency said in a prepared statement Friday. “The limited, 4 percent reduction tier is not available for communities who are relying on that savings account to weather the drought.”

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