Politics & Government

Limits end on most California stream diversions

Thousands of water users across California can again draw water directly from streams after state officials Wednesday lifted restrictions on one of the last major blocks of water rights, imposed in June due to the drought.

The State Water Resources Control Board imposed the curtailments to ensure senior water rights holders would have access to water during the drought, a requirement of state laws governing water rights priority. More than 10,000 holders of so-called “junior” water rights – those awarded after 1914 – were required to cease diverting water from rivers and streams.

Wednesday’s move ended curtailment of water rights in the Sacramento and San Joaquin river watersheds dated after 1953. A similar move last week lifted curtailments for water rights issued between 1914 and 1953.

Kathy Mrowka, enforcement program manager at the water board, said the curtailments were lifted because storms hitting the state this week eased some of the strain on watersheds and allow some opportunity to divert water again. But she warned curtailments could be imposed again, at any time, if nature does not provide enough water.

“If we find that we need to reinstate curtailments later, based on precipitation and water demand, then we would do so at that point,” Mrowka said.

Curtailments were also ended last week in the Russian River watershed.

The only places in California where curtailments remain in force are the Scott River, in far Northern California, and Deer Creek in Tehama County, Mrowka said. Also, another curtailment category remains in place that forbids diverting water released from reservoirs when that water is intended for particular downstream users.

Where curtailments have ended, it relieves – at least temporarily – the strain on water supplies in many small communities, such as Outingdale in the Sierra Nevada foothills. There, the El Dorado Irrigation District in June ordered residents to sharply reduce their water consumption because a curtailment order restricted its ability to meet normal water demands.

“Effective immediately, Outingdale is no longer under the Stage 4 water emergency that limited water usage to a maximum of 50 gallons per day per person,” district spokeswoman Mary Lynne Carlton said via email.

Outingdale and most other communities in California, however, remain under water-use restrictions triggered by the drought. In many areas, this includes limiting landscape irrigation to designated days, no washing of sidewalks and driveways and other measures that vary by location. In Sacramento, for example, residents and business owners are allowed to water landscaping only one day per week, on Saturday or Sunday.

Call The Bee’s Matt Weiser at (916) 321-1264. Follow him on Twitter @matt_weiser.