State Issues New Senior Water Rights Restrictions Even As Old Ones Are Ignored

Monday, June 29, 2015

California’s State Water Resources Control Board told 16 more holders of senior water rights related to Sierra Nevada runoff to give up their access even as its become clear that more than two-thirds (pdf) of already-issued curtailment orders are ignored.

San Francisco lost some of its rights to Tuolomne River along with farmers and Pacific Gas & Electric Company in the Central Valley that tapped into the upper San Joaquin and Merced rivers. San Francisco officials don’t appear to be sweating the loss of water—they get most of theirs from the 95%-full Hetch Hetchy Reservoir—but are participating in a lawsuit against the state, nonetheless.

“We have questions about the state’s authority and process here,” assistant general manager of the city’s Public Utilities Commission Steve Ritchie told the San Francisco Chronicle. This is only the second time since the state Legislature recognized the rights of senior water rights holders with a permit system that they have been usurped, and this is by far the broader action.

San Francisco and other water rights holders, senior and junior, are worried that the drought will precipitate wholesale changes in how the state’s most valuable resource is regulated.  

The Sacramento Bee counts five primarily-agricultural districts that have sued the state, so far. A lawsuit filed last Friday by the Byron-Bethany Irrigation District said $65 million in grapes, almonds and other crops will die if it loses water it gets to irrigate 6,300 acres.

The 16 senior rights holders join 114 who were given curtailment orders a couple weeks ago. Those 114 owners trace their 276 senior rights to between 1903 and 1914. The new ones go back as far as 1858, before the Civil War.

So far, the state has a poor track record at gaining compliance with its orders. A report from the water board last week indicated that only 31% of the 9,112 curtailment orders sent to junior and senior water rights holders have been acknowledged within the seven-day statutory limit. But a board spokesman said that big water users were signing off on the orders and those that complied represented 78% of the water demand.

Buzz Thompson, a Stanford law professor who studies water rights, told the Associated Press the low compliance rate wasn’t surprising, since it runs on an honor system. “If you don't get significant voluntary compliance, at some point the board would have to step in and take further action,” he said.

Different reasons were suggested for non-responses: an already-dried-up water source; involvement in litigation; and bad bookkeeping by good farmers. Oakdale Irrigation District General Manager Steve Knell told the Los Angeles Times there could be another motive in the case of senior rights holders. Until junior rights holders all stop their diversions, “why should senior water users in our ag district be asked to give up one acre-foot of water?”

–Ken Broder


To Learn More:  


California Cuts More Water Rights, Including San Francisco’s (by Dale Kasler, Sacramento Bee)

New Round of Big State Water Cuts to Hit San Francisco (by Kurtis Alexander, San Francisco Chronicle)

California Regulators Curtail Water Diversions for More Senior Rights Holders (by Bettina Boxall, Los Angeles Times)

California: Many Farmers Miss Deadline to Report Water Cuts (by Fenit Nirappil, Associated Press)

Most Water Rights Holders Facing Cuts Miss State Compliance Deadline (by Monte Morin, Los Angeles Times)

State Dries Up Senior Water Rights for a Bunch of Farmers; Indicates More to Come (by Ken Broder, AllGov California)

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