Some Senior Rights Holders Get Their Water Back, for Now

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

No, the drought is not over.

But 238 holders of pre-1914 senior rights in the Sacramento and Feather river watersheds got the green light last week to resume drawing water for the first time since drought restrictions took hold on June 12. The curtailment, part of a larger set of state restrictions ordered between April and July, had been the first-ever significant curb on century-old senior water rights.

California’s State Water Resources Control Board told others in the Yuba, American and San Joaquin river watersheds they are still out of luck. Junior rights holders in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River watersheds and the Delta are also on hold.

“It’s a seasonal thing,” board enforcement program manager Kathy Mrowka told the Sacramento Bee. “Agricultural water use has declined. There’s now sufficient in-stream flow.”

Receiving access to water this time of year isn’t going to save anyone’s crops, California Farm Water Coalition Executive Director Mike Wade told Courthouse News Service. “It will help farmers with some permanent crops and vineyards that may get one last irrigation in now before their trees and vines go into the dormant season,” he said.

Water from California rivers and streams is allocated on a hierarchy of rights established by law in 1914, but extending back to pre-Civil War times. That hierarchy is critical in times of drought and was especially important 100 years ago when alternative sources of water in a geographic location were scarce.

Lawsuits have been filed contesting the state’s authority to mess with the 9,300 holders of senior and junior water rights.

Droughts have always been plentiful in the state, if not sporadic in nature, but the unyielding system provided the holders of junior and, especially, senior rights security. California’s current four-year drought has eroded the moorings of that policy and even Governor Brown has raised the prospect of overhauling the entire system should precipitation remain low and heat continue to rise.

But no one in government at the state or federal level has shown the stomach for that sort of thing, which might entail broadly dictating terms of water use to large agribusiness. Some might argue they are moving in another direction.

The giant Westlands Water District, supplier to Central Valley growers, just signed a secret pact with the federal government for access to lots of water in perpetuity to grow water-sucking nuts in the desert. The district’s $350-million debt was forgiven and it was given control of cleaning up the effluent, without much oversight, that comes from reusing water with toxic heavy metals.

–Ken Broder


To Learn More:

Some California Farmers Get OK to Use Water Again (by Dale Kasler, Sacramento Bee)

California Allows Some with Historic Water Rights to Resume Pumping (by Kurtis Alexander, San Francisco Chronicle)

Some Growers Can Divert Water Again amid Drought, Regulators Say (by Matt Stevens, Los Angeles Times)

Water Flowing Again for Some Calif. Farmers (by Elizabeth Warmerdam, Courthouse News Service)

State Issues New Senior Water Rights Restrictions Even as Old Ones Are Ignored (by Ken Broder, AllGov California)

Water Now Available for Diversion by Senior Water Right Holders on the Sacramento, Feather River and Delta (State Water Resources Control Board) (pdf)

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