Rally planned in Modesto against state effort to limit river water diversions

jnsbranti@modbee.comJune 17, 2014 

Stanislaus County farmers and politicians will rally Thursday in opposition to a state effort to regulate water rights.

Because of water shortages caused by the drought, California’s Water Resources Control Board next month will consider curtailing how much more can be diverted from the state’s rivers.

That includes limiting the century-old water rights relied on by many northern San Joaquin Valley irrigation districts and landowners.

“This unprecedented action is about a power grab,” warned Assemblywoman Kristin Olsen, R-Riverbank. “What the water board is proposing is an overreach of state authority.”

Olsen said the state’s five-member appointed Water Resources Control Board is trying to expand its control over California’s water resources, using the drought as an excuse.

“They are desperate to get their hands on the allocation of water,” Olsen charged. “They’re playing in an arena they don’t have the authority to be in.”

What’s at stake is how much water from the Stanislaus, Tuolumne, Merced and San Joaquin rivers can be diverted this summer by the Modesto, Turlock, Oakdale, Patterson and Merced irrigation districts and others with long-standing water rights.

To sink the water board’s efforts to limit river diversions, Stanislaus’ Farm Bureau and several elected officials will host a gathering at 7:30 p.m. Thursday about what’s being proposed.

“These actions set a dangerous precedent that could be devastating to Central Valley farms, businesses and all of the residents who live and work there,” the event’s announcement warns.

But the state water board paints a very different picture of what’s happening and why.

“We’re just trying to follow the water rights system that’s been in place for 100 years,” said board spokesman Tim Moran. He said the board “is trying to make sure we can all get through this summer and maybe save a little water in case the drought continues next year.”

The problem is that there are more agencies and landowners with century-old water rights than there is water left to divert from the rivers, according to Moran. He said the water board needs to protect those with the oldest rights – some of which date back more than 150 years – from having their water taken by users with less-senior claims.

The water board expects to decide how to do that at its July 1 meeting, but its proposal is not public. “The decision hasn’t been made as to what exactly (the curtailment plan) will look like,” Moran acknowledged.

That’s doesn’t sit well with Olsen and the farmers who need a reliable water supply to irrigate their crops.

Olsen charged that the water board “operates behind a hidden cloak that lacks transparency.”

Rather than focusing on curtailing water rights, Olsen said, state officials should be pursuing options for expanding California’s water supply. “The state has been stalling for decades” on water infrastructure projects that would create more storage, she said.

“Storage may be a great idea, but it’s not going to materialize in the next couple months,” Moran countered. “In the meantime, there’s not enough water.”

Olsen isn’t convinced of that. She doesn’t believe the water board is using “sound data, evidence or modeling” to determine water availability.

The assemblywoman thinks there is enough in the rivers for all those holding pre-1914 water rights to take their share. And she questioned whether the water board had sufficient evidence to justify curtailing river diversions by those with post-1914 water rights, which is the action it took last month.

In a recent post on its Facebook page, the Farm Bureau said, “At least two Westside irrigation districts that pump from the San Joaquin River were told to cease and desist pumping last week.”

That’s not true, according to the water board’s Division of Water Rights. It told The Bee on Tuesday: “The state water board has not issued any CDO’s in Stanislaus County related to the curtailments.”

As of Tuesday, the water board had not been invited to share its perspective at Thursday’s gathering.

That meeting will be held from 7:30 to 8:30 p.m. at the Stanislaus County Farm Bureau headquarters, 1201 L St., Modesto.

Bee staff writer J.N. Sbranti can be reached at jnsbranti@modbee.com or (209) 578-2196.

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