Unrelenting drought conditions in California have led to extensive water right curtailments, including the cutoff of senior water rights in the San Joaquin and Sacramento River Basins. According to the State Water Resources Control Board (“SWRCB”), “Some senior water right holders were curtailed during the drought of the late 1970s”—so the action is rare but not unprecedented.
On June 12, 2015, the State Board issued curtailment orders for water rights with priority dates 1903 and later in the San Joaquin and Sacramento River Basins. Junior water rights, those rights with post-1914 priority dates, were cutoff in April and May, respectively. Junior water rights in the Scott River Basin and the Delta have also been curtailed bringing the total curtailments, as of June 12th, to 9,218 water rights, including the temporary cutoff of water rights in Antelope and Deer Creeks for fishery flows.
Failing to comply with a curtailment order carries a hefty penalty, including “fines of up to $1,000 per day and $2,500/AF of water unlawfully diverted, cease and desist orders, or prosecution in court.”
In addition to imposing cutoffs, the State Board has approved a proposal by riparian water right holders in the Delta, which would allow the right holders to voluntarily reduce either their diversions or the amount of land irrigated by 25% compared to 2013 levels. In exchange, no further curtailments would be imposed on those rights during the growing season. Riparian rights belong to those whose land abuts a waterway and who divert water only for use on that land. They are among the most secure water rights in the state, and curtailments are applied collectively rather than by seniority date.
So how do such sweeping water right cutbacks impact this year’s State Water Project (“SWP”)?
In short, they don’t. The Department of Water Resources (“DWR”) is meeting the 20% allocation using water from storage, primarily San Luis Reservoir, a critical South-of-the-Delta reservoir located near Los Banos. Between late December 2014, after the December rain storms, and January 15, 2015, when the SWP allocation was increased to 15%, DWR moved 450,000 AF from Lake Oroville to San Luis Reservoir. Runoff from the Delta to San Luis Reservoir from storms in February allowed DWR to increase the allocation to 20%, where it now stands.
Written by Marta L. Weismann