June 7, 2014

Our View: Central Valley water districts bracing for fight with state

Water. Even in a drought, it’s our saving grace; our hedge against all bets. If you live in Turlock, Modesto, Merced, Manteca or Oakdale, the value of water is not an abstract.

Water. Even in a drought, it’s our saving grace; our hedge against all bets. If you live in Turlock, Modesto, Merced, Manteca or Oakdale, the value of water is not an abstract.

Neither is reliability. Most of our farmland has reliable water. That’s why it costs more, produces more and generates more taxes than farmland outside irrigation districts. That reliability is based on rights, most of which were established before 1914, to use water from the Tuolumne, Stanislaus and Merced rivers. Now, the reliability of those rights is under assault.

Last week, the State Water Control Board sent curtailment orders to “junior” rights holders across the state. For many, it meant turning to groundwater pumping or giving up on this year’s crop.

Now, the state is signaling it will issue curtailment orders for senior water rights holders in June.

Steve Knell, general manager of Oakdale Irrigation District, said he expects the state board to issue the framework on Wednesday with board approval following by June 18, and implementation by June 25.

This is a serious issue.

The state’s oldest irrigation districts have “senior rights,” established before the Water Commission Act of 1914. Turlock, Modesto, Merced, Oakdale and South San Joaquin all claim at least a portion of their rights date back 110 years. Such rights once were considered unassailable. There had never been a drought so severe that those rights had been challenged. Until now.

Looking at flow data, the state projects there won’t be enough water to provide for the “rights” of all senior holders. So, curtailment orders will allow allocation to the most senior rights holders. How the state calculates those rights is crucial. So is where those senior rights holders live. The state says farmers in the Delta have the most senior rights. But the state admits that “riparian” rights holders are only entitled to “natural flow,” and that’s virtually nil in this drought.

“Are my rights going to be stacked up against a water right in Colusa or just between Stockton and Fresno?” asked Jeff Shields, SSJID general manager. The answer could pit neighbor against neighbor.

The state’s oldest districts are Turlock and Modesto. If the state compares only districts within the same basin, Oakdale, SSJID and Merced will be at a disadvantage. They could be required to carry the burden of increased flows to more senior Delta farmers.

The state has not divulged any complaints from Delta users (which would force action), relying instead on its flow charts. Delta users are mainly individual farmers; tiny by comparison to our districts. The largest in-Delta group on the San Joaquin is the South Delta Water Agency, which has signed a letter specifically not complaining.

If no one in the San Joaquin basin is complaining, and the flow is virtually nonexistent, why go to this trouble? Why not ignore this basin and concentrate on areas where there are conflicts? Is the state determined to pick a fight in the Northern San Joaquin Valley?

“If they adopt it, fine,” Knell said. “Then justify it.” He could have added “justify it in court,” because that’s undoubtedly where this is headed.

The districts with the most to lose are the most nervous.

That said, it must be stressed the state has promised that its curtailment order will not deprive local growers of water already contracted for delivery. This is not a water grab, says water board Executive Director Tom Howard. That means the districts should have enough water to meet this year’s obligations. But Merced ID, for one, isn’t so sure.

“When adopted, our growers stand to lose tens of thousands of acre-feet of water to which they are legally entitled,” said Mike Jensen, government relations officer. “This will also impact our groundwater basin and our local environment.”

There is no way our water districts will simply accept curtailment orders, and they shouldn’t. This is a fight worth having.

“We have 150 years of water rights law in this state, and it exists for the sole purpose of creating order during a drought,” said SSJID’s Shields. “If the state comes in and says, ‘It’s not fair,’ you disrupt that order and wreak havoc on the entire system.”

And everyone – even those with downright ancient water rights – are concerned about the precedent. If the state can allocate water based on the drought, might it also someday decide to allocate based on which crops are most water-efficient or which have the highest value? That could make water less reliable.

As OID’s Knell put it: “All the marbles are on the table, as far as I’m concerned.”

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