Jim O’Banion: State decision usurps long-held Valley water rights

03/09/2014 12:00 AM

03/09/2014 8:30 PM

The negative impacts of the current dry water year will be multiplied many times over if a proposal by a state agency becomes reality and overturns water rights held by water districts for more than 100 years.

During this year of scarce water, the State Water Resources Control Board was petitioned by the Department of Water Resources and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation for operational flexibility to move water through the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta to protect fish and the Delta’s environment. The state board’s response surprised many as it set criteria that would prevent water from being diverted from the Delta for any use other than “public health and safety” purposes – which it did not define. It did this without conducting required public hearings.

Water districts from Redding to Bakersfield will see their water rights evaporate before their eyes, regardless of their water rights category. It is inconceivable that the state board is telling those who get their water from the federal Central Valley Project that because of the drought they are prohibited from pumping water they have a legal right to use.

Water rights held by the San Joaquin River Exchange Contractors Water Authority stretch back to the late 1870s. As they evolved, those rights enabled contractors to take water from the San Joaquin River and deliver it to 240,000 acres of the most productive farmland in California. When the federal government proposed the construction of Friant Dam in 1933, it needed the senior water rights holders to agree to allow their share of San Joaquin River water to be diverted through the Friant-Kern Canal south. That water would be replaced – or “exchanged” – for a substitute supply from the Delta each year.

Unfortunately, Mother Nature did not sign that contract. And this year, the contractors are scheduled to receive only 40 percent of their normal allocation.

The result of the water board’s proposal will significantly reduce even that allocation.

These evaporating water rights are not just a San Joaquin Valley issue. Settlement contractors in the Sacramento Valley, who signed contracts allowing their water from the Sacramento River to become part of the CVP, are also facing a loss of rights.

Farms are a major contributor to the economic and social well being of many rural communities in California. Overturning water rights will create havoc in these communities, contrary to the goal of ensuring the public’s “health and safety.” Why should these communities suffer when major metropolitan areas continue with their everyday life as if there is no water shortage? Likewise, why are farms the only businesses asked to suffer from this loss of water rights? It just doesn’t make sense.

We already know that this year’s unplanted land will exceed 500,000 acres because of low water supplies, but that will easily double if water rights are taken away by the state board. Some water districts are already projecting that more than half of the acres that they serve will remain unplanted. The balance of their acreage is planted in tree and vine crops that also will suffer if the state board gets its way. Reports are already surfacing about insufficient groundwater supplies to keep those crops alive.

The state board’s proposal not only affects farms but also would result in disastrous and irreparable injury to public trust wildlife resources.

The state board’s attempt to arbitrarily ignore the required process to alter water rights is an attempt to tell operators of the federal CVP how to go about their business. For decades, the CVP has delivered water to farms that grow an affordable and safe supply of food. And now the state board wants to essentially take over these operations?

Water users and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation have a viable proposal that would allow water to continue to flow through the Delta and allow the legal delivery of water to farms while protecting water quality as well as fish and wildlife resources in the Delta. Their 60 years of experience should not be discounted.

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