Water board ends some curtailments of senior rights

By Kate Campbell


With harvest well underway, demand for irrigation water has slackened, and the resulting lower water diversions helped prompt the State Water Resources Control Board to lift some curtailments of senior water rights.

The board said last week its analysis indicated the full natural flow in the Sacramento and Feather river watersheds was sufficient to lift water diversion restrictions for 238 senior water right holders.

The lifting of curtailment affected pre-1914 water right holders with a priority date of 1903 or later. The notification means those water right holders may begin diverting again.

Officials warned that other water right holders, including thousands with post-1914 “junior” rights, continue to be curtailed, and urged water users to remain aware of state water board curtailment notices.

The announcement came at a time of uncertainty in the Sacramento Valley about adequate water supplies for rice straw decomposition and habitat for migrating birds.

Farmers say the fall water situation differs by area, with some having access to surface deliveries up to Nov. 1. Other irrigation districts are still waiting to have curtailments lifted. Some will need to pump water to flood fields for winter migratory bird habitat.

Sacramento Valley water officials said growers are concerned about whether there will be adequate water supplies this fall to meet all demands, including the cold-water pool behind Shasta Dam for fish spawn, salinity control in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and transfer water that has been paid for and needs to be sent south of the delta.

“We’re trying to squeeze as much water out of the system as we can for rice decomposition and migrating birds,” said David Guy, Northern California Water Association president, who said he understands there’s about 600,000 acre-feet more water behind Shasta Dam now than at this time last year.

“We understand the need to protect the salmon in the upper part of the Sacramento River,” Guy said. “What we’re trying to do is find creative ways to work with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation to get some water out on the ground for the birds.”

Timing and technique are critical in terms of creating managed habitat, he said. Farmers want to look at options and they’re getting “antsy,” he said.

The state water board said any water right holder found to be diverting water when there is insufficient water available to support their priority of right is subject to enforcement.

The board also said it’s monitoring weather forecasts and stream gages, and will notify right holders of water availability or unavailability as conditions change.

“I give the water board credit,” Guy said. “They’re making the water rights system work. If storms come in during the next several months, there will be more water for wildlife. I expect further lifting of curtailments.”

What’s not clear, Guy said, is why only parts of the Sacramento Valley watersheds had curtailments lifted. Although the Sacramento and Feather rivers carry much of the state’s water supply, he said there are other Northern California watersheds that contribute to flow levels.

The board advised water users to watch its website at www.waterboards.ca.gov/waterrights/water_issues/programs/drought/water_availability.shtml for future updates.

Article is courtesy of the California Farm Bureau Federation.