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California Water Managers Vote to Cut Off Farmers as Statewide Drought Intensifies

Besides 4,300 farmers with junior water rights, water managers also warned senior rights holders they may also see their allocations curtailed --- and summer hasn't even officially begun.

(CN) --- The agency that controls water allotments in the agriculture-rich Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta region told those with water rights that many of them would not get an allotment this year, reflecting the worsening drought conditions in the Golden State. 

The California State Water Resources Control Board sent notices to approximately 4,300 water users in the delta urging them to cease diverting water to preserve the dwindling supply as California grapples in the aftermath of two consecutive dry winters. 

“Due to severe drought in the West, the water supply in many parts of California, including the delta watershed, is not enough to meet demands,” said Erik Ekdahl, deputy director of the Division of Water Rights. “We are asking people to reduce their water use, and we recognize this can create hardships. However, it’s imperative that we manage the water we still have carefully as we prepare for months, perhaps even years, of drought conditions.”

The water board also said about 2,300 senior rights holders may also see severe restrictions as the summer progresses. 

California's drought has been worse than many water managers predicted, largely because the snowpack in the Sierra melted so quickly and replenished parched soils rather than filling the state’s system of reservoirs. 

Some environmental advocates doubt officials' claims of being surprised by water conditions. 

“Hearing (California water board) officials say the reduction in runoff was a surprise is just wrong,” Restore the Delta said via Twitter. “Again, we told the (California water board) this would happen in 2016.”

The water board warning does not mean farmers will be cut off from water right away, but indicates their access to water diversions from the State Water Project, managed by California, and the Central Valley Project, managed by the federal government, will be curtailed. 

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. While senior holders were not told of curtailments on Tuesday, they were warned they could be cut off at some point during the summer. 

Water managers said Tuesday that they were counting on more than 800,000 acre-feet of water that didn’t materialize, roughly the size of the Folsom Lake. 

California Governor Gavin Newsom has declared a state of drought emergency in 41 of 58 counties, including the entire delta region. 

California has also seen a warm spring, which caused farmers to use more water than is typical for this time of year. This forced water managers to react swiftly to dwindling supply. 

Environmentalists are angry that water diversions to the delta will be curtailed as a suite of fish and other species, some of which are endangered, rely on a certain level of water flow from the mountains to keep their habitat intact. 

Farmers along the Russian River have also been informed their water allotments will be curtailed due to the drought. 

California experienced its second-driest year on record this past winter, and the year before that was below average as well. The state experiences a Mediterranean climate characterized by dry warm summers, with nearly all of its precipitation occurring in the fall and winter. 

Shasta Lake, the largest in California’s system of reservoirs, is currently at 41% capacity --- about half of the historical average. 

At 35% of capacity, Lake Oroville stands at 41% of the historical average. 

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