California deepens water cuts amid drought, hitting farms

California regulators began reducing water rights to many farms and irrigation districts along the Sacramento River, forcing growers to stop diverting water from the river and its tributaries.

The order, which went into effect Thursday, suspends about 5,800 water rights on the Sacramento and San Joaquin River watersheds, reflecting the severity of California’s extreme drought.

With a similar order in June, the State Water Resources Control Board has now reduced 9,842 water rights this year in the Sacramento and San Joaquin watersheds, more than half of the nearly 16,700 existing rights.

“The need for these reduction measures is in many ways unprecedented. And that reflects how dry things have been in California over the past three years,” said Erik Ekdahl, deputy director of the state water board’s water rights division. “After three years of truly unprecedented drought, reservoir storage is at an all-time high for much of the state. And there just isn’t enough water for everyone.

The number of water rights that fall under this year’s ordinances is slightly lower than the 10,200 cut in 2021. But the latest cuts came earlier this summer, affecting many farmers at the height of their growing season, when they generally irrigate more.

A long list of agricultural water providers received email notices this week ordering them to stop diverting water from rivers and streams. They included the Glenn-Colusa Irrigation District, the Browns Valley Irrigation District, and the Nevada Irrigation District.

Cities from San Francisco to Sacramento to Redding have also been urged to stop diverting water.

In total, more than 4,300 water rights holders are affected by the restrictions, many of them farmers.

A man fishes on the Sacramento River in Redding.

(Allen J. Schaben/Los Angeles Times)

California’s water rights system allows regulators to restrict rights and stop diversions based on the year a rights holder began using the water.

In the Sacramento River watershed, Ekdahl said, “we are restricting to a priority date of about 1910,” while those with older rights will be able to continue taking water.

While the first cuts in June mostly affected those in the San Joaquin watershed, the latest order affects more than 5,000 water rights along the Sacramento River and its tributaries.

“Cuts are never our first option, and yet we kind of have to go that route,” Ekdahl said.

He pointed out that much of northern California has received only about two-thirds of the average precipitation over the past three years.

“We are now in a really difficult scenario where we have to examine and assess supply and demand, and implement the water rights priority system as it was designed in 1914,” Ekdahl said. “It’s important to just make sure there’s water available and to provide a stable and orderly way to administer a very limited supply during drought.”

Clear Creek, a tributary of the Sacramento River, is one of the streams where chinook salmon spawn in the fall.

Clear Creek, a tributary of the Sacramento River, is one of the streams where chinook salmon spawn in the fall.

(Allen J. Schaben/Los Angeles Times)

Those who were told to stop diverting water largely complied, he said.

“It shows that people recognize that we are in this scenario, we have to get through it all together. But it’s going to get harder,” Ekdahl said.

The cuts are intended to help preserve as much water supply as possible, he said, not only to get through this year, but also in case the state ends up suffering a fourth year of severe drought.

According to the State Water Board, the restrictions will reduce water diversions by about 789,000 acre-feet in July, more than the nearly 500,000 acre-feet the city of Los Angeles provides to customers each year.

California farms and cities are already grappling with supply cuts from two major water systems, the State Water Project and the Central Valley Project.

The drought has taken a toll on California’s agricultural industry, which produces a range of crops including nuts, fruits, rice and hay for livestock.

UC Merced researchers estimated that reduced water deliveries last year resulted in 395,000 acres of dry, unplanted cropland. And growers left more land fallow this year in the Central Valley.

Karen Ross, secretary of the California Department of Food and Agriculture, said initial projections indicate that more than 800,000 acres of farmland will likely be left dry this year, including about 250,000 acres in the Valley of Sacramento, which had previously been largely spared the cuts.

“It’s a huge impact on farms and on entire communities,” Ross said.

She said farms have effectively reduced their water usage over the past two decades while increasing productivity.

Over the past 10 years, the amount of irrigated farmland has also decreased, Ross said, and going forward, “we’re going to farm a smaller footprint.”

This is partly due to the gradual implementation of groundwater pumping limits under a 2014 California law intended to address chronic problems of overpumping and declining aquifers.

The state’s $49 billion agricultural industry is also facing years of drought that are made worse by warmer temperatures fueled by human-caused climate change.

Ross said the reality underscores the need to conserve now and adapt to warmer, drier futures.

She said the dryness is a huge “punch in the gut because it’s so heartbreaking”.

“It’s a very stressful time in the GA,” she said. “But we’re also very, very resilient.”

In addition to water rights restrictions, rice farmers who are part of a group called the Sacramento River Settlement Entrepreneurs have voluntarily reduced their water usage. Ekdahl said they were receiving around 18% of their full contract allocations.

He said the state water board does not have data on how the cuts will affect different crops in the Central Valley.

Last year, many large irrigation districts were able to use water stored in reservoirs, which is not subject to the restrictions, Ekdahl said. Many also continue to have access to groundwater, and some may purchase water from other producers.

Ekdahl said who is affected and who won’t be a “site-specific kind of question.”

What is clear is that without enough water for everyone, he said, it will be difficult for some growers to find enough for their crops this summer.

Los Angeles Times

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