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California water regulators block thousands of farmers from accessing state’s largest watershed

Regulators said the order was intended to “protect drinking water supplies, prevent salinity intrusion and minimize impacts to fisheries and the environment.”

(CN) — California ordered thousands of farmers and ranchers Friday to stop drawing from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta amid worsening drought conditions or face up to $10,000 in fines per day.

The order will affect approximately 4,500 water rights holders, according to the statement issued by the State Water Resources Control Board.

The order was voted through unanimously by the State Water Resources Control Board more than two weeks ago. The regulators said the order was an effort to “protect drinking water supplies, prevent salinity intrusion and minimize impacts to fisheries and the environment.”

The order is the latest development in a drought war waged by the state government, environmental advocates and the farmers and ranchers who have water rights to the delta. The order mandates that those farmers cut back their water usage or be fined up to $10,000 per day. Farm groups have long resisted the move, arguing that it harms the state’s agricultural industry, which generates nearly $50 billion per year.

“Curtailing water rights has an impact on livelihoods and economies, but it is painfully necessary as severe drought conditions this year and next could threaten health, safety and the environment,” said Erik Ekdahl, deputy director of the Division of Water Rights, in a statement. “We will do everything we can to make compliance both straightforward and fair. We are offering reporting and technical assistance to all right holders and will also be regularly conducting inspections and investigating complaints to ensure that diverters are complying.”

Andreas Borgeas, a Republican state senator whose district encompasses parts of the Central Valley, criticized the order on Twitter.

“Gavin Newsom should direct state agencies to prioritize human welfare and food production, and California leaders must invest in long-term storage solutions,” Borgeas said.

But environmental groups came out in support of the move, in part because of the dire threat posed to salmon by dropping reservoir levels and increasing water temperature and salinity. The group Save California Salmon took to Twitter last week in support of water curtailments.

The importance of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta’s water supply extends beyond farmers and environmentalists. The State Water Resources Control Board said that without the order, “drinking water supply for 25 million Californians and irrigation for over three million acres of farmland could be at significant risk within the next year.”

Water curtailments and the controversies surrounding them are not uncommon in California during droughts. In May, water cuts were ordered in the famed wine country of Sonoma and Mendocino counties. Citing heat waves and climate change, last month Newsom urged farms, businesses and residents across the Golden State to voluntarily reduce their water use by 15% in response to the drought.

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