SACRAMENTO (CN) - Senior water rights holders in California - including farmers - who have been shielded from water reductions may have to cut back in the drought, the State Water Resources Control Board says.
The board issued the curtailment warning on Friday to holders of more than 36,000 water rights across the state.
"These are very difficult times, and everyone, urban and rural, will have to make sacrifices as we go through them. As we deal with an unprecedented drought, both urban and rural water users should anticipate we will continue to take unprecedented actions," State Water Board Chair Felicia Marcus said.
The warning was directed to the farmers, cities and energy companies who have rights to divert water for their needs, including for irrigation and hydroelectric dams. The state's water rights system gives priority to those who made claims before 1914.
If drought continues through the spring, those with post-1914 water rights should expect curtailments.
Many holders of pre-1914 water rights could also get curtailment notices, and riparian water right holders in some watersheds are likely to be required to reduce their diversions and share what supplies of natural flow remains, the board said.
Violators could face fines of up to $10,000 a day under emergency drought legislation signed last year.
More than 5,000 water rights were curtailed last year, which contributed to the fallowing of more than 400,000 acres of farmland and the loss of thousands of agricultural jobs, according to the state water board.
The situation is likely to be repeated this year.
The warning came only a few days after Gov. Jerry Brown ordered cities and towns to cut back water use by 25 percent .
Brown did not order restrictions on the agricultural sector, but many farmers are already dealing with diminished state and federal water allocations .
In a Sunday interview on ABC's "This Week," Brown defended the heavy water use for the state's agriculture industry, pointing out that farmers have had to fallow hundreds of thousands of acres of land and jobs are at risk.
"If you don't want to produce any food and import it from some other place, theoretically you could do that. But that would displace hundreds of thousands of people and I don't think it's needed," Brown said.
Environmental groups have criticized Brown for not putting water restrictions on "mega-farms."
"While urban water conservation measures are desperately needed, Governor Brown is not calling for shared sacrifice. What he is enacting is sacrifice by 98 percent of Californians, and the sacrifice of the most magnificent estuary on the West Coast of Americas, for the top 1 percent of water and land barons on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley," Restore the Delta Executive Director Barbara Barrigan-Parrilla said.
Barrigan-Parrilla pointed to almond farmers who are not tearing up thousands of acres of almonds they planted along the I-5 corridor in the past 10 years, stating that the rest of Californians are being forced to make sacrifices so that "billionaire farmers" can continue to export almonds to China.
Approximately 9 million acres of farmland in California are irrigated, soaking up about 80 percent of the water that people use in the state.
"Governor Brown should direct the Water Board to place a moratorium on the use of groundwater for irrigating crops on toxic and dry soils on the Westside of the San Joaquin Valley," said Adam Scow, California director of the Food & Water Watch.
"In the two-year period covering 2014-2015, the Westlands Water District is on pace to pump over 1 million acre feet of groundwater - more water than Los Angeles, San Diego, and San Francisco combined used use in one year. Much of Westlands grows water-intensive almonds and pistachios, most of which are exported out of state and overseas. This is a wasteful and unreasonable water use, especially during a severe drought," Scow said.
The 80 percent figure does not take into account the water the state allocates for environmental purposes, which include wild and scenic rivers, the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, wildlife refuges and wetlands.
Taking environmental water uses into account, the data shows that 50.2 percent is used by the environment, 40.9 percent for agriculture, and 8.9 percent by urban residents and businesses, according to the Department of Water Resources.
Brown pointed out that California's farmers are not "watering their lawn or taking longer showers," but are "providing most of the fruits and vegetables of America."
The governor did note that some people have a right to more water than others due to the historic legal framework of California, but said that if things continue at that level, "that's probably going to be examined, but as it is, we do live with a somewhat archaic water law situation."
If and when curtailment notices will be sent out to water rights holders will be based on forecasts of water availability and demand, according to the State Water Board.
In more dismal water news, the State Water Board reported Tuesday that Californians reduced their water consumption just 3 percent in February compared with 2013 figures - the worst showing since the drought began - following a record-dry January.
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