State Dries Up Senior Water Rights for a Bunch of Farmers; Indicates More to Come

Monday, June 15, 2015

1914 was an eventful year. The Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria was assassinated, marking the unofficial start of World War I, the Ford Motor Company announced the eight-hour work day with an unheard of daily wage of $5 and 19-year-old Babe Ruth debuted with the Boston Red Sox as a pitcher.  

In California, lawmakers created the state’s first permit system for people drawing water from rivers and springs, establishing the primacy of senior “pre-1914” rights. That spot in the pecking order has only been challenged once, in a limited fashion in 1977, until now.

The state telegraphed it was coming for months, but on Friday the State Water Resources Control Board sent out notices to 114 owners (pdf) holding 276 senior rights that access to flowing water in the Sacramento River basin, the San Joaquin River basin and Delta is curtailed until further notice.

The San Jose Mercury News said they use 1.2 million acre feet of water a year, around twice what Los Angeles residents use. The board said in its announcement there is “no exception health and safety” (pdf), but if the water is being taken to comply with the Division of Drinking Water (DDW) or local health or drinking water regulations, users could apply for an exemption.

The order only covers those with rights established post-1903. But more curtailments are coming and could be announced on a weekly basis.

Lawsuits against the state are expected to arrive just as quickly. Holders of senior rights were incensed when the state asked them last month, for the first time, to document them. That set off a paperwork scramble and probably more than a few phone calls to lawyers.

The board’s move follows by three weeks a deal struck between the state and holders of riparian water rights (flows that abut their property). Farmers in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta can sign up to forestall curtailment this growing season in exchange for using 25% less water or fallowing 25% of their fields. Around half of the 400 eligible farmers have, while others are taking their chances.

Around 9,000 possessors of junior “post-1914” water rights have already seen their allotments curtailed. That set off a frenzy of unsustainable groundwater pumping, which the state has never properly monitored, much less regulated.

Although much has been made of the state’s convulsions over Governor Jerry Brown’s mandated 25% statewide water cuts aimed at residential users, 80% of water in California is used by agriculture. Year four of the drought has exposed the state’s water policies, which lack an informational foundation, as ineffectual and unfair.

Part of the problem is explained by the Associated Press in an introduction to its database of California riparian and senior rights holders. “Nineteenth-century laws allow nearly 4,000 companies, farms and other water rights holders to use an unmonitored amount of water for free―and in some cases, to sell what they don't need.”

As the state seeks to rework its water policies by hacking off an urban limb and bleeding some Northern California senior rights holders, it has largely avoided discussion about planting decisions made by farmers that aren’t tethered to water usage.

Until there are, we will continue to be entertained by sordid tales of almonds, alfalfa and trillion-gallon exports of California water to China and beyond mandated by the marketplace.   

–Ken Broder


To Learn More:

California Drought: In Historic Step, Senior Water Rights Curtailed (by Lisa M. Krieger, San Jose Mercury News)

California Orders Large Pumping Cuts for Farmers with Old Water Rights (by Fenit Nirappil and Scott Smith, Associated Press)

California Moves to Restrict Water Pumping by Pre-1914 Rights Holders (by Bettina Boxall, Los Angeles Times)

California Announces Restrictions on Water Use by Farmers (by Jennifer Medina, New York Times)

California Slashes Senior Water Rights (by Nick Cahill, Courthouse News Service)

Delta Deal with Farmers Dodges Showdown over Senior Water Rights―for Now (by Ken Broder, AllGov California)

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