California Slashes Senior Water Rights

     SACRAMENTO (CN) – For the first time since 1977, owners of some of California’s oldest water claims are being issued curtailment notices in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta region.
     California’s historic drought claimed more victims Friday as the state’s water regulator announced it has issued notices to 114 senior water-rights holders to cease water diversions in the delta region. The State Water Resources Control Board said the curtailments will save 1.2 million square feet of water and that more curtailments are on the way as the state’s notoriously hot weather drags on.
     “Right now [the notices] exist just as a notice of curtailment, informing them that we determine there is no water available under their water right,” said Thomas Howard in a press conference, executive director of the water board.
     California’s water rights system is a seniority based system and Friday’s notices affect owners of water rights dating back to 1903 and later. Those with older claims are still being allowed to divert water from river systems and streams in the delta region but the water board said they are likely to be put on notice this summer as well.
     “We anticipate every one to-two weeks through the summer, issuing another batch of these as the supply of water declines and the demand continues at the summer level,” Howard said.
     While this is just the second time in the state’s history that senior water-rights holders have been forced to cease diversions, the water board said they issued warnings in January that curtailments were on the way. In April, delta farmers owning water rights after 1914 were issued curtailments as Sierra Nevada snowpack measurements revealed a historically-low amount of snow.
     Forced into action by the state’s historic four-year drought, the water board announced last month it accepted a program with delta farmers that would allow them to avoid water curtailments by agreeing to reduce water usage by 25 percent. State officials have estimated around half of the farmers eligible for the program signed up by the June 1 deadline.
     Friday’s announcement coincides with an announcement by President Obama regarding drought relief funds for several western states. California will receive $18 million in federal funding to support farm workers and others who have lost jobs due to the drought.
     “Currently, 35 percent of the West is facing severe to exceptional drought. In California, the mountain snowpack that supplies most of the water during the summer months is only a trace above zero,” the White House said in a release regarding the aid.
     California Governor Jerry Brown in a statement said the feds’ funding will support the thousands of farmworkers who have already lost jobs due to the drought. Brown and several other state governors participated in a phone conference with President Obama Friday to discuss the massive drought impacted numerous western states.
     The curtailments issued Friday by the water board will have further impact on farmers and agricultural workers as farmers will be forced to fallow more land, Howard said.
     “Each water rights holder has a different situation, with different options available,” he said. “When they run out of options, they’ll have to abandon whatever crops are cultivated at the time.”

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