By Nick Cahill
SACRAMENTO (CN) — California water regulators on Tuesday ordered thousands of farmers and ranchers to stop pulling from the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta in the latest escalation of the state’s bitter drought.
The State Water Resources Control Board blamed the unprecedented emergency action, which will bar farmers in some of the state’s most productive farmland from using river water for the first time, on the worsening drought and climate change. They said the drastic action was necessary to save endangered salmon, protect drinking water and prep the state for the possibility of another dry winter.
With the state mired in its second driest two-year-period on record, the contentious decision is intended to prevent further ecological disaster in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta.
The effects of California’s drought have been worse than the federal government and state predicted, largely because the snowpack in the Sierra melted so quickly and replenished parched soils rather than filling the state’s system of reservoirs. During warmer portions of the year, supplies are pulled from the state’s major reservoirs to cool river temperatures and stem saltwater intrusion downstream in the delta.
But this year, too much water was delivered in the winter and spring and now the water board is cutting off farmers that have relied on surface water for generations in a last ditch effort to improve delta water quality.
As in California’s previous dry spell, the state and federal government have botched management of the delta and parts of the estuary are becoming overly salty as the scorching summer rolls on.
For example, insufficient freshwater inflows to the delta have spurred widespread harmful algae blooms and the state has been forced to spend millions on an emergency rock barrier to keep saltwater from encroaching further toward the pumps that deliver water south to farmers and cities.
The delta is the largest freshwater estuary on the West Coast and the hub of two massive water conveyance projects jointly operated by the state and federal government. The delta props the state’s multi-billion-dollar farming industry and provides drinking water for an estimated 25 million people.
The operators of the Central Valley and State Water projects applauded the water board’s unanimous vote and admitted previous actions taken to preserve water quality in the delta have come up short.
“Despite our best collaborative efforts, the projects continue to struggle to meet temperature and storage targets in reservoirs to meet delta salinity conditions and to provide water for public health and safety,” said Ernest Conant, regional director of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, California-Great Basin region. “We’ve run out of tools and ways to meet all these competing demands.”
The California Department of Water Resources, which manages Lake Oroville and the State Water Project, echoed the bureau’s sentiment.
“It’s critical that the state of California begins to implement this and DWR will offer its support,” added department director Karla Nemeth.
During the last drought some notices of unavailability were sent to some junior delta water rights holders, but the new order applies to the entire watershed.
Under Tuesday’s framework, junior water rights holders will lose their supply first once regulators deem supplies are insufficient, followed by more senior water rights holders. In addition, municipal and commercial water rights holders could be directed to cease diversions if conditions continue to worsen.
When the water board released the proposal last month, it estimated 5,700 water rights holders would be initially impacted by the first batch of curtailments.
California has a complex set of water rights, where people who received diversions from various areas before 1914 have seniority over those who procured water rights later.
Tuesday’s emergency order builds on curtailment warnings and orders the water board has issued over the last several months. It also requires delta water rights holders to submit more stringent water usage data.
Spurred by historically low flows in a critical wine country river, the water board last May ordered nearly 1,000 water users to slash diversions from the Russian River. The famous wine-growing region in Sonoma and Mendocino counties has been particularly devastated by the drought and received the first drought declarations from Governor Gavin Newsom.
The order has since been expanded to include hundreds more water rights holders, including towns like Cloverdale and Healdsburg, and violators face fines of up to $1,000 per day. Meanwhile, Newsom has now declared drought in 50 of the state’s 58 counties and urged residents to voluntarily cut water usage by 15%.
The water board’s next warning shot came in June when it notified thousands of farmers in the state’s delta watershed that curtailments were on the horizon. Though delta farmers had already been cut off from the state’s two main delivery systems — the Central Valley and State Water projects — those with direct rights could continue diverting from delta tributaries.
But with dropping reservoir levels and dire predictions about catastrophic salmon die-offs, the water board felt compelled to follow up on the June warning letters and issue the comprehensive cutbacks on Tuesday.
Agricultural groups have coined the directive as the “largest surface water supply cut in state history” and argue it could cause crops already in the ground to spoil and go unharvested this fall. They accuse the state and feds of mismanaging supplies, noting that just a few years ago many reservoirs like Lake Oroville were spilling over.
According to the California Farm Water Coalition, water cuts have already caused farmers to plant less tomatoes, rice, grapes, corn, garlic, beans, asparagus and almonds.
“Drought conditions are significant this year, however, we can’t ignore our state and federal leaders’ failure to meaningfully prepare for this drought. Science told us this pattern was inevitable, and those same experts insist it will become more frequent as a result of our changing climate,” the coalition said in a statement.
While the operators of the two major water projects testified in support of the curtailments, delta water agencies collectively cried foul.
During the over eight-hour hearing,several water suppliers impacted by Tuesday’s decision accused the water board of shifting responsibility for delta water quality from the government to local farmers and landowners. They said the decision effectively lets the feds and state off the hook for sending out too much water last spring and punishes local farmers.
“This water that’s been stored has been comingled with water in the delta,” said Osha Meserve, attorney for the Local Agencies of the North Delta. “There’s always water in the delta and now the burden is on our mostly small famers to try to figure out how to prove that they have a right to the water.”
Other groups said the widespread curtailments will likely lead to litigation, noting that a state judge shot down similar orders during the previous drought because of due process concerns.
The San Joaquin Tributaries Authority called the emergency drought policy rushed and said delta water suppliers and farmers are wary of the water board’s intentions. It said water users haven’t been given enough time to evaluate or give input regarding the loss of their main irrigation source.
“There’s a fundamental issue with trust,” said Valerie Kincaid, authority attorney. “These cutoff regulations came out a week ago and they’ve undergone several changes; it’s just too fast, you’ve got to listen to stakeholders in this process.”