Farmers across state face new water cuts

With 60% of the state now in extreme drought conditions, state officials are warning water-right holders that they should expect more curtailments during peak irrigation season in June and July.

In a statement last week, the state Division of Water Rights said “curtailments are expected to increase progressively through the spring and summer and continue through the early fall until significant precipitation occurs.”

The warnings of curtailments could also include senior water-right holders. “Accordingly, water-right holders and claimants should plan for reduced supplies even if your water right or claim is not currently curtailed,” the Division of Water Rights said.

Drought emergency curtailment regulations were issued last fall by the California State Water Resources Control Board for certain watersheds in response to persistent dry conditions and spurred by a drought emergency declaration by Gov. Gavin Newsom.

Curtailment orders adopted last year are effective for up to one year unless readopted. The state water board is now considering renewed curtailment orders to readopt—and extend—newly revised draft drought emergency regulations.

The state water board readopted regulations for the Russian River watershed last week, and it plans to do the same for the Scott River and Shasta River watersheds and the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta watershed.

“We are seeing unprecedented levels of water cutbacks and water-rights curtailments throughout the system in this second year of extreme drought, and it’s a real strain for everyone ,” said Justin Fredrickson, California Farm Bureau environmental policy analyst.

During a workshop last week, state water board staff heard comments on an updated method used to predict water supply and demand to determine needed curtailment levels. Water from the delta contributes to the supply for more than two-thirds of Californians and is used to irrigate millions of acres of farmland.

The state noted that only a small number of the more than 17,000 water rights in the delta watershed are currently curtailed. But, because supplies will diminish in coming months, it warned that “all right holders—including those with older or riparian rights—should prepare accordingly.”

Meanwhile, federal and state allocations for irrigation this summer have already been reduced or cut to historic levels.

“Readopting the emergency measure is critical to protecting water stored in the delta for human health and the environment, especially as we enter a third consecutive year of extreme drought,” said Diane Riddle, an assistant deputy director with the board. “Toward that end, we are continuing to update our method for determining when water is unavailable to ensure an efficient and equitable process for right holders.”

South-delta water districts, such as the Bryon-Bethany Irrigation District in Contra Costa County, have some of the oldest water rights in the state—riparian and pre-1914 rights, in addition to a contract with the federal Central Valley Project. BBID’s post-1914 right allocation through the CVP is zero this year.

Challenges over the board’s legal authority to curtail senior pre-1914 and riparian rights are also ongoing, Fredrickson said, by BBID, others in the south and central delta, and on the Stanislaus and Tuolumne rivers.

Some water users in other parts of the delta are expressing relief that they may not be significantly impacted this season.

“For farmers in the delta with riparian rights, I think we’re going to be OK except for those western-most islands,” said Dante Nomellini Sr., an attorney who represents the Central Delta Water Agency.

“Delta riparians are not curtailed at the present time, but there are some pre-1914 curtailment problems with just a couple of entities in the delta,” he said. “It’s expected that the board will eventually curtail post-1914 water rights in the delta.”

As part of a recently granted temporary urgency order, Nomellini said the state water board temporarily relaxed water quality standards in the delta watershed. He said ocean salinity continues to be a problem.

“The far western delta islands are taking a hit on water quality that is fairly significant. If you were trying to farm economically down there and they’re reducing these standards, you’d be in trouble,” he said.

To incentivize water users in the delta watershed to take actions to reduce crop water use and protect water quality, the state and related partners offered $900 per acre through the Delta Drought Response Pilot Program. The program is currently oversubscribed.

“A bunch of farmers enrolled in the program are changing practices to save water. How much water will be saved is yet to be determined as part of the pilot,” Nomellini said. “Our position at the Central Delta Water Agency has been that we’re willing to have voluntary programs to help in a real crisis, but we don’t want to be a substitute supply for water development.”

Sacramento County farmer Steve Mello of Walnut Grove said he is not directly impacted by the curtailment order. But he said he is identifying ways to reduce water use this year and contribute to needs elsewhere in the state. For example, he is planting silage corn, which is used for livestock feed and requires less water than other varieties.

“We farm about 2,600 acres, and I put 174 acres into the (drought response) pilot program. I want to be seen as part of the solution rather than part of the problem,” said Mello, chairman of the North Delta Water Agency. “It’s a big state, and our farming brethren elsewhere are in trouble. The delta environment is in trouble, and the water that came from the folks that agreed to not irrigate is being used for environmental purposes.”

Salinity in the delta is a concern among many delta farmers, Mello said, adding there is not enough water stored in state and federal reservoirs to control salinity. Many district farmers changed their cropping regimen to more drought-tolerant and salt-tolerant crops, he said.

Elsewhere, Scott River and Shasta River watersheds emergency curtailment orders halt water diversions from the rivers whenever a monthly minimum instream flow target for salmon is not met for each watershed. Residents in that region weighed in during a May 4 state water board meeting on readopting the emergency order.

Shasta Valley rancher Ryan Walker of Montague said potential changes to the curtailment discussed for the Scott River and Shasta River watersheds are mostly minor. However, he said, one challenge is board staff recommendations against allowing livestock watering in open ditches.

“After November, these ditches are a valuable source of groundwater recharge, and they (staff) are actually making matters worse by not letting us use those ditches for stock water,” Walker said.

Some farmers express frustration that the state remains focused on flow targets on the mainstem river, as opposed to tributaries or the fish migration calendar.

“Despite being well below the minimum flows most of last summer, we had a record number of coho outmigrants, so it is clear the connection between flow and our ability to rear—especially coho in the Scott—are just not there,” Walker said.

Locals told the board that the emergency curtailment regulations are threatening livelihoods as the state prioritizes minimum flows to protect threatened coho and other fish.

Sari Sommarstrom, a retired watershed consultant in the Scott Valley community of Etna, told the board, “I’m passionate about fish, as evidenced by my over 30 years of working in habitat restoration in the Scott River watershed, but I’m also passionate about the Scott Valley community and what’s fair to both.”

“About half of Scott Valley’s irrigated lands (15,000 acres) will end up being fallowed by this summer since those areas using only surface water will be 100% cut off once minimum flows aren’t met,” she said. “I don’t think there’s any other agricultural area in California that will have this much land fallowed.”

The state water board is expected to release updated draft regulations for the Scott River and Shasta River watersheds this week, with a public meeting to follow on May 25. The board could consider readoption of the rules June 21.

(Christine Souza is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at [email protected].)

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