More Angst As Water Cuts Approach

TRACY — Walnut grower Jim McLeod, 86 hadn’t even been born when farmers just south of Tracy made a deal that they believed would give them a secure water supply forever. In the 1920s, they decided to purchase water rights from neighboring San Joaquin River diverters — rights that now are more than a century old.

They used teams of horses to dig ditches and canals to take the water. “It was a fantastic deal,” said McLeod, as he unlocked the door to a pump house where some of the original pumps are still churning away. “It was great. They were forward-thinking, and it put us first in line for water.”

But the founding fathers of what now is the Banta-Carbona Irrigation District probably couldn’t imagine that long after they died, even the senior right they’d purchased might be in jeopardy.

“State officials have warned that within a matter of days, at least some of those century-old rights up and down the San Joaquin River watershed will be temporarily cut off. That extraordinary measure, they say, is needed to ensure there’s enough water left for those whose rights are even older.

In a widely publicized deal reached last week, farmers in the Delta have the option of voluntarily decreasing their water use 25 percent in order to avoid more significant state-imposed reductions later. The plan shields them somewhat from state enforcement.

But many farmers outside of the Delta in San Joaquin County, not to mention the rest of the watershed, have no such protection from the coming cuts.

Locally, the hardest-hit area might be the southwestern pocket of the county. Some farmers there have contracts with the federal government for water pumped south from the Delta, but that water hasn’t been available the past two years.

Now, suddenly, their higher-ranking river rights are uncertain as well.

“It’s like the the sword of Damocles hanging over you,” McLeod said. “You don’t know if it’s going to fall, or when it’s going to fall.”

‘Severely injured’

Growers of the 14,000-plus acres within Banta-Carbona do have one thing going for them: Last year, they were able to store some of their precious San Joaquin River water in San Luis Reservoir, farther south near Los Banos. Through exchanges with other water users, McLeod and his neighbors hope to survive on that San Luis water this year.

Others are not so fortunate. The West Side Irrigation District, on the west and east flanks of Tracy, already has been told to stop taking water because its rights are not as old.

The West Side district has a contract to buy some of Banta-Carbona’s river water. But if that gets cut off also …

“They will have nothing — no stored water, no groundwater,” said Jeanne Zolezzi, a Stockton attorney representing water districts in the area.

With more curtailments expected in the weeks to come, “There are many districts and farmers in San Joaquin County that will be severely injured by the actions that the state water board plans to take,” Zolezzi said in an email.

Water board records identify 1,586 senior water rights in San Joaquin County that predate 1914, the year when the state began regulating water rights. (Junior rights obtained after 1914 already have been curtailed this year.)

The county’s senior rights are for any number of purposes, from large agricultural diversions to tiny stock ponds and campgrounds.

Many of those water-right holders also claim separate riparian rights that come with living adjacent to a stream, and they can continue to rely on those rights for now. But officials have indicated that even riparian rights may be reduced in the weeks to come.

Attorneys for the senior diverters on the San Joaquin watershed have suggested, and the State Water Resources Control Board has acknowledged, that the matter will end up in court.

The attorneys argue that the board doesn’t have to cut water rights so broadly. The intent may be to protect those with older water rights, but none of those older rights-holders are complaining that they’re short of water, the attorneys say.

They also say there may be more water in the lower San Joaquin River than officials realize, including flows returning to the river from farmers’ fields farther upstream.

Ultimately, the water board “feels it must take some kind of action in order to avoid bad press” and therefore is “taking an activist position,” Zolezzi wrote.

For its part, the water board has frequently described its role as one of balancing competing needs. And it’s true that all sectors of water use — urban, agricultural and the environment — have taken a hit this year.

“We’re in a drought unprecedented in our times and that of our parents and grandparents,” board chair Felicia Marcus said earlier this month. “That’s calling us to take unprecedented action.”

In a statement Friday, a spokesman said the water board has authority to protect senior water rights regardless of whether any complaints have been filed by those users. The board also claims the authority to protect water previously stored in reservoirs, and on that topic, southland water exporters have complained that their water is being illegally diverted by others.

It’s a complex situation.

Back at the old pump house near the San Joaquin, McLeod says he believes there is still enough water in the river for himself and his neighbors to continue pumping. They are, after all, senior water-right holders, and the black-and-white photos of the men and horses digging the trenches are a reminder of that fact.

“If they take the water away from us,” McLeod said, “then where does the water go? There is no definitive answer.”