Water & Drought

Urban water districts accuse Delta farmers of stealing water

The Sacramento River and the spillway of Shasta Dam on Wednesday, June 3, 2015. Their populations dwindling, Northern California’s fish suddenly are taking a leading role in the drought-related drama gripping the state.
The Sacramento River and the spillway of Shasta Dam on Wednesday, June 3, 2015. Their populations dwindling, Northern California’s fish suddenly are taking a leading role in the drought-related drama gripping the state. rbenton@sacbee.com

The tension between California farm interests and the state’s urban water users ratcheted up Tuesday, as a consortium of mostly urban water districts filed a complaint alleging Delta farmers are stealing water.

The group of 27 agencies, including the massive Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, said farmers in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta put water quality at risk by diverting more water than they have a right to. The consortium, called the State Water Contractors, made the filing with the State Water Resources Control Board.

“These landowners in the Delta have long-standing water rights that entitle them to water when nature provides it – but those rights do not entitle them to stored water paid for by others and intended for the environment,” said Stefanie Morris, acting general manager of the contractors group. “If nature ran its course, the Delta would not be suitable for drinking or farming this summer.”

Dante John Nomellini, who represents the Central Delta Water Agency, said the complaint amounts to the water agencies “playing a game.” His district serves about 120,000 acres in the heart of the Delta.

“When it comes down to us, they claim we’re taking their stored water,” he said. “Well, it’s commingled with our water. And the law is clear when you commingle your water with somebody else’s you cannot deprive them of the water to which they’re entitled ...”

Also on Tuesday, state and federal officials announced they will continue to restrict flows out of Lake Shasta to protect endangered salmon. Shasta is the largest reservoir in the Central Valley Project, the vast federal network that pumps water throughout the state.

Under a compromise struck weeks ago, farmers agreed to leave much of their water in Shasta longer than usual to keep the lake cool enough for winter-run Chinook salmon to lay eggs this summer. Water agencies made plans for water use based on the compromise. But new data showed Shasta waters were running warmer than expected, and officials ordered a temporary curb of water flows. The plan sketched out Tuesday essentially extends those cuts.

Ryan Sabalow: (916) 321-1264

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