State water board puts off decision on conflicting river diversion rights

After more than 10 hours of often emotional testimony Tuesday by Stanislaus County farmers and other California water users, the State Water Resources Control Board delayed deciding what to do regarding conflicting water rights.

The board’s staff had recommended taking steps toward regulating river diversions by those who have century-old water rights – including the Modesto, Turlock, Oakdale, Patterson, South San Joaquin and Merced irrigation districts.

Farmers who get their irrigation water directly from the Stanislaus, Tuolumne, Merced and San Joaquin rivers also may be affected by what the water board decides needs to be done during this third year of drought.

The board will resume its water rights discussion this afternoon at 1 p.m. in Sacramento.

Thousands of Northern San Joaquin Valley landowners already have had their water diversion rights curtailed this summer, which is causing economic hardships.

“We sure are hurting,” said Jasbir Nijjar, who farms 240 acres in western Stanislaus County. He displayed photos of water-stressed almond trees near Patterson that have been cut off from water. “This is doing permanent damage to our crops.”

Nijjar said he and other farmers are fighting for their financial lives to survive this drought. “The banks are circling us” because of water reliability issues, he said. “They’re questioning whether they will renew our operating loans.”

Lack of irrigation water from rivers is forcing farmers to pursue costly alternatives. “I’m taking a $300,000 hit because I’m trying to put in two wells,” Nijjar told the board.

Hickman walnut grower Bret Warner testified, “Walnuts are a 35-year investment. One year without water and that investment is gone.” He and other water users urged board members to reject their staff’s suggestions about curtailing more water diversions and imposing hefty fines on farmers who continue to irrigate after being told to stop.

State regulators contend that their proposals are intended to protect those with California’s most senior rights to water. But many of those who packed Tuesday’s hearing room don’t believe that’s the real intent of the expanded regulations. “This is basically theft of senior water rights, not the other way around,” Warner said.

Dozens of people testified against the staff’s proposals, including representatives from Gallo Vineyards, the supplier of drinking water for San Joaquin County’s Mountain House community, owners of vacation cabins in the Sierra and Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta farmers.

Tim O’Laughlin, an attorney whose firm represents Northern San Joaquin Valley irrigation districts, suggested – as others did – that the state’s real motive is to capture more Northern California water for shipment to Southern California through the Central Valley Project and State Water Project canal systems.

The agencies that operate those massive water conveyance systems – the California Department of Water Resources and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation – testified in support of the proposed new rules. Those agencies said California needs to protect the water it has stored in Northern California reservoirs from being illegally diverted after it gets released down the rivers and into the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. They said that water is supposed to go the Central Valley Project and other specific locations downstream, but too often doesn’t make it that far.

O’Laughlin argued that tightening regulations on those who hold century-old water rights water in the Northern San Joaquin Valley is not the answer to problems with illegal diversions in the Delta.

“We’re upstream. We’re clearly not diverting the (Central Valley Project’s) water,” O’Laughlin explained.

The board’s five members decided they needed more time and numerous wording changes before they would be ready to make any new rules regarding water rights.