LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - California’s water board, facing a devastating four-year drought, on Friday curtailed some longstanding water rights for agriculture and other uses in Northern and Central California for the first time in nearly 40 years, officials said.
The curtailment affects more than 100 so-called senior water rights holders, including water districts and farmers of commodities such as almonds, pears and grapes, with most of those located near the Sacramento River, the State Water Resources Control Board said in a statement.
The order will impose limits on water use by these rights holders for irrigation and provision of livestock, and marks the first time since a drought in the late 1970s that California has curtailed water diversions to senior water rights holders in the state, the board statement said.
California’s water rights system is based on a “first in time, first in right” principle that gives priority to water users who first made claims. So-called junior rights holders face cutbacks in times of drought before restrictions are placed on those with more seniority.
The state is cutting back distribution of water amounting to 1.2 million acre feet per year in a move centered on the San Joaquin and Sacramento river watersheds and in the delta formed by the confluence of those rivers, said board spokesman Tim Moran.
The order for the Delta, San Joaquin and Sacramento regions is aimed at water users with rights dating to 1903 or later, while those with rights before that date can continue to operate without restrictions, the board statement said.
As a result, holders of rights dating to before 1903 could begin selling water to other users, said attorney Scott Shapiro of the firm Downey Brand, which deals in water rights issues.
“We move into a free market situation,” Shapiro said.
Growers facing curtailments may draw more heavily on groundwater or fallow their crops, amid a drought that also has prompted Governor Jerry Brown to impose the state’s first-ever mandatory cutbacks in urban water use, up to 36 percent in some communities.
“The water-rights system was created to deal with unreliable and often scarce supplies, and we have scarcity that California hasn’t seen in many, many years, if ever,” said California Farm Bureau Federation president Paul Wenger.
Brown was criticized earlier this year for largely exempting agriculture from severe cutbacks in the state’s water distribution system, a move he has partly defended based on the economic importance of farming.
Reporting by Alex Dobuzinskis in Los Angeles; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Sandra Maler