In an aggressive move to address “immediate and dire water shortages,” California’s water board on Tuesday unanimously approved emergency regulations to temporarily stop thousands of farmers, landowners and others from diverting water from from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta watershed.
The new regulations — the first to take such widespread action for the massive Delta watershed stretching from Fresno to the border with Oregon — could lead to formal curtailment orders for about 5,700 water rights holders as soon as Aug. 16. The Aug. 3 decision comes on the heels of curtailment orders issued to nearly 900 water users along the drought-stricken Russian River, with 222 more expected next week.
The five water board members, who were appointed by Gov. Gavin Newsom or former Gov Jerry Brown, approved the rule despite vehement opposition from representatives of Central Valley growers.
Sen. Shannon Grove, a Republican from Bakersfield, said the regulation would “disrupt the critical production of essential food…Instead, the state should focus on expanding water storage and upgrading its existing water infrastructure, not punish local water managers.”
Assemblymember Adam Gray, a Democrat from Merced, called the curtailment orders for senior water rights holders “one of the most destructive measures possible.”
“The board’s legal authority is by no means certain,” Gray wrote to the board. “Growers will have to risk significant fines and penalties just to find out whether the Board actually has the authority it claims. Either way, they lose.”
Water users who continue to divert could face penalties of up to $1,000 per day plus $2,500 per acre-foot of illegally diverted water, according to Erik Ekdahl, deputy director of the board’s division of water rights.
“Growers will have to risk significant fines and penalties just to find out whether the Board actually has the authority it claims. Either way, they lose.”
Most of California is experiencing an extreme drought, with May and June the warmest and driest on record since 1896. Lake Oroville, one of California’s largest reservoirs, is expected to reach a new historic low in October.
Demand for water from rivers and streams has outstripped supply 16-fold in the San Joaquin River watershed and three-fold in the Sacramento River, according to State Water Resources Control Board staff. Dwindling flows risk salty backwash from the Pacific tainting supplies for drinking, farmers and fish.
Karen Ross, secretary of the California Department of Food and Agriculture, told the water board that “this year there’s plenty of pain to go around.
“Mother Nature and climate change have brought us the situation that we have. And therefore the decisions that you have to make have very real impacts on people. But not making these decisions would have even more horrendous impacts for people,” Ross said.
A representative of the Westlands Water District, which relies on stored federal water supplies that flow through the Delta, said he supported the water board’s regulations.
“They will protect transfer water that’s been acquired to help mitigate, in part, the impacts of drought,” said Jon Rubin, assistant general manager and general counsel. “They will also help protect stored water and for those reasons Westland supports the resolution that’s been presented.”
Supplies of up to 55 gallons per person per day for minimum human health and safety needs, such as drinking and household use, are exempted from the curtailments.
The City of Vallejo urged the water board in a public comment letter to increase the 55 gallon cap, or change the way it’s calculated. The limit is “too rigid,” said Vallejo water operations manager Beth Schoenberger “and will be very difficult to implement in areas without a firm population count.”
Rachel Becker is a reporter with CalMatters.