California deepens water cuts amid drought, hitting farms

California regulators have begun restricting the water rights of many farms and irrigation districts along the Sacramento River, forcing growers to stop diverting water from the river and its tributaries.

The order, which went into effect Thursday, retains about 5,800 water rights in the Sacramento and San Joaquin River watersheds, reflecting the severity of California’s extreme drought.

This year, along with a similar order in June, the State Water Resources Control Board has now restricted 9,842 water rights in the Sacramento and San Joaquin watersheds, more than half of the nearly 16,700 existing rights.

“The need to take these containment measures is in many ways unprecedented. And it reflects how dry things have been in California over the past three years,” said Erik Ekdahl, deputy director of the state water agency’s water rights division. “After three years of truly unprecedented drought, storage capacity is at an all-time low for much of the state. And there just isn’t enough water for everyone.”

The number of water rights covered by this year’s regulations is slightly fewer than the 10,200 that were cut in 2021. However, recent cuts have come earlier in the summer and are affecting many growers at the peak of their growing season, when they typically irrigate more.

A long list of agricultural water utilities received email notices this week telling them to stop diverting water from rivers and streams. These included the Glenn-Colusa Irrigation District, the Browns Valley Irrigation District, and the Nevada Irrigation District.

Cities from San Francisco to Sacramento to Redding have also been asked to stop diverting water.

In total, more than 4,300 water rights holders are affected by the restrictions, including many farmers.

A man is fishing on the Sacramento River in Redding.

A man is fishing on the Sacramento River in Redding.

(Allen J. Cockroaches / Los Angeles Times)

California’s water rights system allows regulators to limit rights and stop diversions based on the year a rights holder began using water.

At the Sacramento River watershed, Ekdahl said, “We’re reducing to a priority date of about 1910,” while those with older rights can still take water.

While the initial cuts in June mostly affected San Joaquin’s watersheds, the latest order affects more than 5,000 water rights along the Sacramento River and its tributaries.

“Cuts are never our first option, and yet we have to go down this path,” said Ekdahl.

He pointed out that much of Northern California has received only about two-thirds of average rainfall over the past three years.

“We’re in a really tough scenario now where we have to look at and assess how much supply and demand there is and implement the water rights priority system the way it was designed in 1914,” Ekdahl said. “This is important to ensure water is available and to provide a stable and orderly way to manage a very limited supply during a drought.”

Clear Creek, a tributary of the Sacramento River, is one of the creeks where running Chinook salmon spawn in the fall.

Clear Creek, a tributary of the Sacramento River, is one of the creeks where running Chinook salmon spawn in the fall.

(Allen J. Cockroaches / Los Angeles Times)

Those who were told to stop diverting water have largely complied, he said.

“It shows that people realize that we are in this scenario, we all have to work through it together. But it will be more difficult,” said Ekdahl.

The cuts are intended to help preserve water supplies as much as possible, he said, not only to get through this year but also in case the state suffers a fourth year of severe drought.

According to the state water agency, the cuts will reduce water diversions by about 789,000 acre-feet in July — more than the nearly 500,000 acre-feet the city of Los Angeles ships to customers annually.

Farms and cities across California are already struggling with supply shortages from two major water supply systems, the State Water Project and the Central Valley Project.

The drought has taken a toll on California’s agricultural industry, which produces a range of crops including nuts, fruit, rice and hay for cattle.

UC Merced researchers estimated that reduced water supplies over the past year left 395,000 acres of farmland dry and unplanted. And growers have left more land fallow in the Central Valley this year.

Karen Ross, secretary of California’s Department of Food and Agriculture, said early projections suggest more than 800,000 acres of farmland are likely to remain dry this year, including about 250,000 acres in the Sacramento Valley, which had previously been largely spared from cuts.

“It’s having a tremendous impact on farms and entire communities,” Ross said.

She said farms have been effective in reducing water use over the past two decades while increasing productivity.

The amount of irrigated farmland has also decreased over the past 10 years, Ross said, and going forward “we’re going to farm a smaller footprint.”

That’s in part due to the phasing-in of limits on groundwater pumping under a 2014 California law designed to address chronic problems from over-pumping and declining aquifers.

The state’s $49 billion agricultural industry is also struggling with drought years compounded by warmer temperatures fueled by human-caused climate change.

Ross said the reality underscores the need to save now and adapt to a hotter, drier future.

She said the drought was a huge “punch in the gut because it’s so heartbreaking”.

“It’s a very stressful time in farming,” she said. “But we’re also very, very resilient.”

In addition to water rights restrictions, rice farmers who are part of a group called Sacramento River Settlement Contractors have voluntarily reduced water use. Ekdahl said they receive about 18% of their full contractual awards.

He said the state water agency has no data on how the cuts will affect various crops in the Central Valley.

Over the past year, many of the major irrigation districts have been able to use water stored in reservoirs that is not subject to the cuts, Ekdahl said. Many continue to have access to groundwater, and some are able to buy water from other producers.

Ekdahl said who is affected and who is not is a “site-specific type of question”.

What’s clear is that if there’s not enough water to get around, some growers will have a hard time finding enough for their crops this summer, he said. California deepens water cuts amid drought, hitting farms

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