Just two weeks after California's farmers - with the most senior water rights - offered to cut their own water use by 25% (in an attempt to front-run more draconian government-imposed measures), AP reports that the California government has - just as we predicted - ignored any efforts at self-preservation and ordered the largest cuts on record to farmers holding some of the state's strongest water rights. While frackers and big energy remain exempt from the restrictions, Caren Trgovcich, chief deputy director of the water board, explains, "we are now at the point where demand in our system is outstripping supply for even the most senior water rights holders."
With "the whole damn state out of water," AP reports State water officials told more than a hundred senior rights holders in California's Sacramento, San Joaquin and delta watersheds to stop pumping from those waterways.
The move by the State Water Resources Control Board marked the first time that the state has forced large numbers of holders of senior-water rights to curtail use. Those rights holders include water districts that serve thousands of farmers and others.
The move shows California is sparing fewer and fewer users in the push to cut back on water using during the state's four-year drought.
"We are now at the point where demand in our system is outstripping supply for even the most senior water rights holders," Caren Trgovcich, chief deputy director of the water board.
The order applies to farmers and others whose rights to water were staked more than a century ago. Many farmers holding those senior-water rights contend the state has no authority to order cuts.
The reductions are enforced largely on an honor system because there are few meters and sensors in place to monitor consumption.
California already has ordered cuts in water use by cities and towns and by many other farmers..
The move Friday marked the first significant mandatory cuts because of drought for senior water rights holders since the last major drought in the late 1970s. One group of farmers with prized claims have made a deal with the state to voluntarily cut water use by 25 percent to be spared deep mandatory cuts in the future.
The San Joaquin River watershed runs from the Sierra Nevada to San Francisco Bay and is a key water source for farms and communities.
Thousands of farmers with more recent, less secure claims to water have already been told to stop all pumping from the San Joaquin and Sacramento watersheds. They are turning to other sources of water, including wells, reservoirs and the expensive open market.
Some farmers have built their businesses around that nearly guaranteed access to water.
Jeanne Zolezzi, an attorney for two small irrigation districts serving farmers in the San Joaquin area, says she plans to go to court next week to stop the board's action. She said her clients include small family farms that grow permanent crops such as apricots and walnuts without backup supplies in underground wells or local reservoirs they can turn to when they can't pump from rivers and streams.
"A lot of trees would die, and a lot of people would go out of business," said Zolezzi. "We are not talking about a 25 percent cut like imposed on urban. This is a 100 percent cut, no water supplies."
California water law is built around preserving the rights of such senior-rights holders. The state last ordered drought-mandated curtailments by senior-water rights holders in 1976-77, but that order affected only a few dozen rights holders.
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As NASA concluded previously, as difficult as it may be to face, the simple fact is that California is running out of water — and the problem started before our current drought. NASA data reveal that total water storage in California has been in steady decline since at least 2002, when satellite-based monitoring began, although groundwater depletion has been going on since the early 20th century.
Right now the state has only about one year of water supply left in its reservoirs, and our strategic backup supply, groundwater, is rapidly disappearing. California has no contingency plan for a persistent drought like this one (let alone a 20-plus-year mega-drought), except, apparently, staying in emergency mode and praying for rain.
In short, we have no paddle to navigate this crisis.
Several steps need be taken right now.
First, immediate mandatory water rationing should be authorized across all of the state's water sectors, from domestic and municipal through agricultural and industrial. The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California is already considering water rationing by the summer unless conditions improve. There is no need for the rest of the state to hesitate. The public is ready. A recent Field Poll showed that 94% of Californians surveyed believe that the drought is serious, and that one-third support mandatory rationing.
Second, the implementation of the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act of 2014 should be accelerated. The law requires the formation of numerous, regional groundwater sustainability agencies by 2017. Then each agency must adopt a plan by 2022 and “achieve sustainability” 20 years after that. At that pace, it will be nearly 30 years before we even know what is working. By then, there may be no groundwater left to sustain.
Third, the state needs a task force of thought leaders that starts, right now, brainstorming to lay the groundwork for long-term water management strategies. Although several state task forces have been formed in response to the drought, none is focused on solving the long-term needs of a drought-prone, perennially water-stressed California.