Agriculture

‘A painful moment’: Calif. delivers unprecedented cut of water supplies with new order

Following six hours of input from water and environmental players across the Golden State, California’s top water regulator enacted its most intense cuts to water supplies on Tuesday.

The order, issued via unanimous vote of the California State Water Resources Control Board, curtailed considerable water supplies for farmers, including senior water rights holders who seldom see drastic cutbacks in water supplies – even in drought.

The move is among the most drastic ever taken in California’s history.

“It is a painful moment,” Agriculture Secretary Karen Ross said during the lengthy hearing on Tuesday. “We know the impacts are real.”

In total, an estimated 12,500 sets of water rights held by 5,700 water rights holders abutting the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta will be affected by the curtailment order, the board’s Division of Water Rights reported during Tuesday’s meeting.

The emergency order is set to go into effect in two weeks after receiving approval from California’s Office of Administrative Law.

Along with exempting uses by municipal water systems for health and safety uses, such as drinking and bathing water, the curtailment order has additional carveouts for so-called “non-consumptive” uses of water.

These uses, which do not require prior approval from the State Water Board, include include diversions for hydroelectric power generation, diversions for the benefit of fish and wildlife so long as the targeted stream is connected to the source, irrigating lands within the so-called “legal Delta” boundaries so long key metrics demonstrate such irrigation does not increase depletion of Delta channels.

The move by California’s water board comes as only the third drought in the state’s history it has taken such drastic action, said Jay Lund of UC Davis’ Center for Watershed Sciences.

The first curtailment was issued during the difficult 1976-1977 drought. It was resurrected during 2014 and 2015.

The prospect of salt water intrusion — a kind of tug of war between the tide pushing in from San Francisco Bay and the freshwater flowing through the watershed into the delta and out toward the bay — looms large over drought discussions in the delta.

Alex Tavlian is the Executive Editor of The San Joaquin Valley Sun and Executive Director of Valley Future Foundation. You can reach Alex at alex.tavlian@sjvsun.com.