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California drought continues to cause irrigation cutbacks

By
Tim Linden

California, which has already reduced water deliveries received through the State Water Project to zero or near zero levels, has now stopped water diversions for thousands of farmers and other users in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta watershed.

In early August, the California State Water Resources Control Board unanimously voted 5-0 to put new limitations on 5,700 water right holders, including farmers and landowners, preventing them from diverting more than 55 gallons per day from their adjacent water sources without prior approval. These users have long term water rights based on the location of their land adjacent to these water sources. In addition, all water use has to be reported by those who have water rights in the region. Failure to comply will result in significant fines, including penalties as high as $1,000 per day, as well as up to $2,500 for each acre-foot of water diverted without expressed permission.

The new diversion ban is expected to be approved by California’s Office of Administrative Law by mid-August.

This action stems from California’s worsening drought situation as a very dry winter has been followed by high summer temperatures adding to the state’s dire situation.

While more cutbacks to farmers are not a welcome sight, representatives of agriculture and the state’s many water districts were not summarily opposed to the State Water Board’s action.  Many groups weighed in on the proposed diversion ban with many of their comments concerning the length of the ban and the mechanics of it. Western Growers, which represents many growers in the state, officially commented on the regulations as a signee of a letter generated by like associations in California. 

Gail Delihant, senior director of state government affairs and a water expert for the association, agreed the state is in bad shape and efforts to better manage water use are needed. In fact, she said, “Rules mandating large amounts of water to be released from reservoirs and flushed out to the ocean in prior months and years have gotten us into this current situation. The state water system was designed for dry periods like this. We are in dire straits because of implementation of environmental rules from the State Water Board and the environmental rules due to the federal and state Endangered Species Acts.”

She said the excess use of stored water for unattainable environmental goals has depleted the resources to a critically low level.

She noted this particular ban of water diversion was ordered because the state is not achieving the environmental results it expected with the amount of water it has released from the state’s Shasta and Oroville reservoirs that was pumped through the delta and out to sea to curb salt intrusion. She said the state’s water officials are theorizing that more water is being diverted from the delta by adjacent users than is being reported. Hence, the board is banning water diversions to ensure water quality standards are able to be met.

What Western Growers and other groups are lobbying for are mitigation efforts to increase storage as soon as possible once the rainy season begins, if it does.

More water restrictions in California are expected in the coming weeks as the drought intensifies.

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