May 31, 2014

State officials on Friday ordered 1,634 junior water rights holders in the San Joaquin River basin to stop diverting water, the latest in a series of similar orders as California continues to grapple with a serious drought.

Letters were sent to the water users Friday telling them to “immediately stop diverting” or face fines of $1,000 per day and $2,500 for each acre-foot of water diverted.

This is the first time such orders have been issued since the drought of the late 1970s.

More details

Water users who receive orders to stop diverting must fill out forms within seven days to confirm that they have stopped. Limited exceptions apply, such as water that is needed for human health and safety purposes.

Water users can learn more by calling the water board’s hot line at (916) 341-5342.

The letters shouldn’t come as a surprise. The State Water Resources Control Board has warned for months of the impending need to cut off at least some water users. Earlier this week, identical letters were sent to thousands of junior water rights holders in the Sacramento River watershed.

“There is simply not enough water to satisfy all water rights holders,” board Chairwoman Felicia Marcus said earlier this week. “We recognize how challenging this drought is for junior water right holders and their customers, and we will make adjustments in real time, based upon the flow in our rivers and streams … to lift restrictions whenever possible.”

The orders could cut off a range of water users, from individual farmers to larger water districts and cities scattered across the watershed. These water users may draw from the San Joaquin River or from tributaries like the Stanislaus, Tuolumne and Merced rivers, along with many smaller creeks and streams.

One example is the agricultural West Side Irrigation District in the south Delta, which has a junior right to divert from Old River. The district also typically receives water from the federal Central Valley Project, but none will be available from that source, either.

“This will have a very real and devastating effect on the growers within the district,” Jeanne Zolezzi, an attorney for West Side, said in an email Friday.

Another example, she said, is the West Stanislaus Irrigation District on the San Joaquin River just north of Patterson. That district has junior rights on the San Joaquin. With restrictions now in effect, however, Zolezzi said 20,000 acres of land – much of it permanent crops that cannot be fallowed – will go without water in 2014.

Not all water users are affected by Friday’s order.

California has a pecking order for water rights. When shortages occur, those with the older water rights – generally pre-dating 1914 – receive water first. That also includes diverters with so-called “riparian rights,” whose properties abut creeks or streams.

Many Delta farms fall into that category and can continue to take water for the time being.

Also enjoying senior rights are growers within the South San Joaquin Irrigation District on the Stanislaus River.

The Stockton East Water District does not expect to face hardships as a result of the orders, General Manager Scot Moody said Friday, because the district receives a portion of its water from New Melones Lake under federal contract.

City of Stockton offices were closed Friday, so it remained unclear whether the curtailment orders might affect the city’s new drinking water plant in the Delta.

But even those who don’t receive orders to stop diverting might face similar restrictions later this summer. Those senior water rights holders are urged to conserve water now.

The big fight could come later in the year if the state tries to stop riparian water users in the Delta, or other senior water rights holders, from diverting water. Representatives of those senior water users have complained that emergency actions to bypass water-quality regulations, allowing more water to be pumped south from the Delta, represents an attack on senior water rights.

“We’re OK for now, but we’ll have to see what the state board does next,” said John Herrick, an attorney for the South Delta Water Agency. “It’s a big mess.”