Calif. Cities, Farms, Orchards Fight for Water

     SACRAMENTO (CN) – California ordered San Francisco, five water agencies and the state’s biggest utility to stop pumping from rivers and streams, targeting water rights dating back to 1858.
     The State Water Resources Control Board on Friday sent notices curtailing 16 water rights held by 11 senior diverters on the upper San Joaquin and Merced rivers. The cuts affect five water agencies that collectively serve more than 300,000 acres of farmland, as well as Pacific Gas & Electric, a ranch and a dairy.
     Because PG&E can use water for hydroelectric generation as long as the flows are returned to the river, it is unlikely to be seriously affected by the notice.
     San Francisco was sent a curtailment order for rights it has held to divert water from the Tuolumne River since 1903.
     The water board said the city’s rights should have been curtailed two weeks ago when it delivered orders to those holding water rights from 1903 or later. San Francisco’s notice was omitted because of an incorrect entry in the water board’s database.
     The order will have little practical effect on San Francisco because the city pulls most of its water from other sources, including Hetch Hetchy Reservoir, which is 95 percent full. San Francisco gets 85 percent of its water from the reservoir.
     California has curtailed more than 9,000 water rights this year. Until this month only junior water rights holders were affected – those who laid claim to surface water after 1914.
     Two weeks ago, the water board announced cutbacks for 114 water users who established their rights to divert water from the San Joaquin River, Sacramento River and the Delta between 1903 and 1914. Until this year, the state had curtailed pre-1914 rights only once, during the 1977 drought.
     More senior rights curtailments are expected as supplies continue to decline through the summer, the water board said.
     Several irrigation districts are fighting back in court, claiming the water board does not have the power to curtail senior rights.
     The latest district to sue is the Byron-Bethany Irrigation District, which filed a complaint in Contra Costa County Superior Court on Friday, demanding that the notice of curtailment it received on June 12 be rescinded immediately.
     Byron-Bethany’s curtailments affect family farms, ranches and communities that depend on the district for water.
     The 12,000 residents of Mountain House rely solely on the Byron-Bethany Irrigation District for water. The district calls the state’s action dangerous and illegal.
     “Enough is enough,” said Russell Kagehiro, president of the Byron-Bethany Irrigation District board. “The more than 160 agricultural customers we represent provide food for Californians and the entire United States. The State Water Board has chosen a path that will force farmers and ranchers to defend rights as old as California itself. It is irresponsible and unnecessary.”
     Land served by the district provides corn, tomatoes, alfalfa, grapes, cherries, walnuts, and an enormous number of livestock.
     “These farming communities are vital to California’s economy and to our country’s food supply,” said the district’s general counsel, Daniel Kelly. “We are optimistic that the court will uphold our century-old water rights and our constitutional rights, lifting the restriction on our diversion of water before our farmers and the communities we serve realize the devastating impact of the State Water Board’s action .”

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