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Calif. board votes to curtail senior water rights

Thousands barred from drawing water from the state's rivers and streams amid severe drought.

Tim Hearden, Western Farm Press

August 4, 2021

2 Min Read
The Sacramento River drains into the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta.Tim Hearden

California's State Water Resources Control Board voted 5-0 on Aug. 3 to impose an emergency curtailment of senior water rights throughout the Central Valley because of the drought.

The board will issue shutoff notices this month to thousands of landowners in the vast Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta watershed after issuing a similar order in June to about 4,300 junior rights holders in the Delta.

The regulations curtail all re-1914 appropriative water rights in the San Joaquin River watershed, and would affect diverters in the Sacramento River watershed with a priority date of 1883 or later, the California Cattlemen's Association has explained. Some water rights with earlier priority dates may also be curtailed within certain Sacramento River tributaries, according to the CCA.

The regulation covers around 5,000 users in the Delta area, with exemptions only for human health and safety and non-consumptive uses. A majority of growers within the Delta itself have pre-1914 rights and have been managing to bring their crops to harvest.

The order will make it more difficult for farmers such as Arbuckle, Calif., almond grower Don Slausen, whose state surface water was already cut. He doesn't have a well and has been trying to rely on water transfers.

"We're in trouble" if the drought continues beyond this summer, Slausen recently told Farm Press. "I would say this drought is as bad as '77. It means our future is pretty bleak unless we get rain this fall."

The water board could face a legal challenge from irrigation districts, who told the board last week it does not have the authority to curtail water to those whose claim pre-dates 1914 -- the year California enacted its water rights law, the Visalia Times-Delta reported.

A judge in 2015 sided with irrigators who challenged a similar curtailment during that year's drought, ruling the state violated their due process.

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