State curtails senior water rights for OID and SSJID

The state Friday curtailed some of the water rights for the Oakdale and South San Joaquin irrigation districts, a move their leaders vowed to fight.

They and the already-ravaged Merced Irrigation District were among 114 rights holders in the Central Valley that the State Water Resources Control Board included in its latest order amid the extreme drought.

The move does not affect water already stored in reservoirs, but it does keep the affected agencies from catching whatever runoff is left in the nearly depleted watersheds.

“It means we start pulling earlier on that stored water, leaving less water for end of year in the dams and leaving less water for carryover into next year if the drought continues,” OID General Manager Steve Knell said by email.

It was the first time since 1977 that the board curtailed water rights predating 1914, when the current system was established. Districts with pre-1914 rights had been in better shape than others during the drought, though their farmers are seeing considerably less water than in better times.

Friday’s order involves rights secured from 1903 to 1914. The board indicated that even older rights could be affected if conditions do not improve, including those held by the Modesto and Turlock irrigation districts.

“It’s not even summer,” the board’s executive director, Tom Howard, told The Sacramento Bee. “We’re going to be doing further curtailments.”

The Merced district already planned to deliver zero surface water this year because of extremely low storage.

“While extremely concerned by the state board’s action today, the district is proud of its local management of water on the Merced River during this drought crisis,” the district said in a prepared statement. “If not for MID’s actions, the Merced River below Lake McClure would have gone dry several times during this prolonged drought and would go dry again this year.”

The Modesto and Turlock districts said they do not expect their Tuolumne River supplies to be reduced by the state board this year, but both said they would work to protect their rights.

Knell said OID might sue the board on the grounds that it does not have authority to curtail pre-1914 rights. He also said the board did not allow any appeals of the ruling, and his and other districts have a history of cooperating in tight times.

“The water board is using a bulldozer when it needs a scalpel,” Knell said in a news release. “It does not have enough data and information to support this decision. It is based on estimates and unverified claims.”

The latest order involves two of OID’s five rights to divert the Stanislaus River. Knell said the board could act as soon as next week on the others. The district serves much of northeastern Stanislaus County and southeastern San Joaquin County.

SSJID is taking a similar stance in its effort to protect the Stanislaus River water it delivers around Ripon, Escalon and Manteca.

“It is imperative they do not use this emergency as a rationale to thwart the water rights priority process and create chaos where order should prevail,” the district said in a news release.

Water board officials said they’re bracing for lawsuits. “They have a right to their day in court,” Howard said.

As sweeping as the decision is, Howard said, it isn’t clear how much water will actually be saved by Friday’s order. Plenty of water rights holders, anticipating the action, have been storing water in reservoirs, and that supply is off limits to regulators.

“Stored water is ... essentially the property of the person who stored it,” Howard said.

But he said he believes Friday’s order will bring more pain to water users, particularly farmers.

“There will be some land ending up being fallowed as a result,” he said.

Mike Wade of Modesto, who heads the California Farm Water Coalition, told The Sacramento Bee that it “is really impossible at the moment to tell how many farms are going to be affected and what that’s going to mean for food production and prices for consumers.”

Customers of the federal Central Valley Project and the State Water Project, the two mammoth man-made systems that bring water from north to south, have lost about one-third of their water this year. It’s estimated that more than 500,000 acres of farmland will sit idle, some of it in western Stanislaus, Merced and San Joaquin counties.

“With every turn of the screw as water supplies shrink, more people suffer,” said Modesto-area nut grower Paul Wenger, president of the California Farm Bureau Federation, in a prepared statement. “Water shortages undermine rural economies, both in the short term and the long term, and these additional shortages will spread that impact to more people in more places.”

Friday’s order doesn’t affect the city of San Francisco’s share of the Tuolumne River, under rights that date to 1901.

John Holland: (209) 578-2385