by Ryan Sabalo | Sacramento Bee
Water regulators on Friday formally ordered thousands of farmers across California to cut their water use this summer or face fines of up to $10,000 a day.
The State Water Resources Control Board began sending formal “cut notices” to 4,500 water rights permit holders, which allow them to draw water from the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers and their tributaries.
The state’s 500 to 600 heaviest water users are also being asked to inform the state how much water they are expected to use and what their projected demand will be.
In a call with reporters on Friday, regulators said the action was necessary as there is no guarantee of adequate rain and snow will fall to refill the state’s shrinking reservoirs.
“It’s really important to prevent excess loss of supply, and protect the resources we have should there be a drought next year,” said Eric Eckdahl, deputy director of the Water Board’s Department of Water Rights. “It’s very important that everyone follows the cut-off orders.”
Regulators said the cuts are needed to protect the increasingly sluggish, endangered cold-water fish swimming in warmer waters and to avert a potential disaster for California’s human residents next year.
Worryingly, without enough water in the reservoirs that surround the Central Valley, the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta could become too salty next year. The vast estuary at the southern door of Sacramento requires a certain amount of fresh water, which prevents saltwater from pushing inland in the Pacific Ocean.
If the delta becomes too salty, it could have dire consequences across the state. Water pumped from the delta supplies 25 million people in the Bay Area and Southern California.
The delta also provides water to nearly 3 million acres of Central Valley farmland, which is home to the bulk of the state’s $50 billion-a-year agricultural economy.
The cutting work has been going on for weeks. Ekdahl said the board voted 5-0 August 3 to formally approve them, but it took more than two weeks to finalize the process.
Environmentalists applauded the move, and earlier this summer, the state’s Department of Food and Agriculture secretary, Karen Ross, said the cutoff was “absolutely necessary” given the severity of the drought.
But many farmers were critical, saying state and federal governments should have invested in more dams and other water projects to boost state supplies after the last drought.
Farms and cities receiving imported water from the network of canals and pumps that make up the State Water Project or the federal Central Valley Project have already cut their allocations, in some cases to none.
Friday’s orders relate to farmers and others using the water under the state’s Byzantine rights system that sets a pecking order giving priority to users with the oldest claims of the river.
On the San Joaquin River watershed, for example, Friday’s deduction includes those whose rights were established before and after 1914, the year California formally established its legal water rights framework.
On the Sacramento watershed, the deduction applies to some farmers whose rights date back to the 1890s, said Diane Riddle, a water board program manager for the Department of Water Rights.