Drought-Stricken California Orders Historic Water Cuts for Farmers

Low water levels are visible in the Bidwell Marina at Lake Oroville on August 19, 2014, in Oroville, California. Lake Oroville is currently at 32 percent of its total 3,537,577 acre feet. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

(SOURCE)  Drought-stricken California has ordered farmers and others who hold some of the strongest water rights in the state to stop all pumping from three major waterways in one of country’s prime farm regions.

The order involving record cuts by senior water rights holders in the Sacramento, San Joaquin and delta watersheds followed mandatory water curtailment earlier this year to cities and towns and to farmers with less iron-clad water rights.

The waterways targeted Friday in the order by the State Water Resources Control Board provide water to farms and cities in the agricultural-rich Central Valley and beyond.

Economists and agriculture experts say growing of some crops will shift in the short-term to regions with more water, so the water cuts are expected to have little immediate impact on food prices.

The curtailment order applies to 114 entities — including individual landowners and water districts serving farmers and small communities — with claims dating back to 1914 or before.

It will force thousands of water users in the state to tap groundwater, buy water at rising costs, use previously stored water, or go dry.

“It’s going to be a different story for each one of them, and a struggle for all of them,” Thomas Howard, executive director of the water board, acknowledged.

There are several thousand senior rights holders who are the last to have their water rights curtailed in times of scarcity.

It’s the first time since a 1977 drought that California has directed a significant number of senior water rights holders to stop pumping because of drought and amounts to the most widespread cuts ever among those with some of the state’s strongest water rights.

California water law was built around preserving the water rights of those who staked claims to waterways more than a century ago or have property that abuts the rivers and streams.

Water regulators had spared the senior-rights holders until now but warn that still more cuts will be coming for farmers and others in weeks to follow.

People ordered Friday to cut back have water rights going back to 1903. Officials say they have rights to an estimated 1.2 million acre-feet for a year — more than a dozen times San Francisco’s annual use — but the officials do not know how much the curtailments will save this summer.

“We are now at the point where demand in our system is outstripping supply for even the most senior water rights holders,” said Caren Trgovcich, chief deputy director of the water board.

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