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COURTHOUSE NEWS: Despite more stored water than in 2021, California will keep closing spigots

The prospect of extreme drought is driving the Golden State’s conservation efforts.

By Kevin Winter, Courthouse News Service

As drought conditions persist and with the potential for another dry winter due to La Niña, some good news: the California State Water Resources Board learned Wednesday reservoirs in the northern and central parts of the state have more water than at this time last year.

State Water Project reservoirs across Northern and Central California remain below historical averages after three consecutive years of drought. But with a combination of people cutting water use, curtailments, farmers fallowing fields and a focus on storage, the reservoirs in the State Water Project are either above or near where they were last year. By the end of September the reservoirs are forecast to be below historical averages but higher than 2021.

This comes as the Division of Water Rights is issuing new curtailment orders weekly. Some orders affect water rightsholders going back to the 1800s. One area that could see even further cuts are the Shasta and Scott river watersheds in Northern California.

Erik Ekdahl, deputy director for the Division of Water Rights, noted the new cuts in the Shasta River watershed will probably be implemented fairly soon and could affect rightsholders as far back as 1885. The proposed curtailments would help the Shasta and Scott rivers meet their minimum flows of 50 cubic feet per second through the summer.

The board voted to continue the emergency resolution to allow curtailments in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta after a lengthy discussion and comments from local water agencies opposed to the amendments and the overall cuts to water users in the delta.

The amendments to the plan centered around the methodology used to calculate the lack of available water in the delta and what model should be used, how to count flows into the stream after they are used and effects from thousand of acres of farmland that has been fallowed due to the drought.

The delta — where the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers converge and flow into the San Francisco Bay — is a complex system of water storage, sloughs, wetlands, levees, farms, islands and more. Water for the Central Water Project and the State Water Project flow through the delta before being pumped to other parts of California via the California Aqueduct.

According to the water resources board, the proposed changes initially adopted in August 2021 will provide more flexibility on reporting requirements for water users and for alternative water-sharing agreements, and incorporates the latest science and modeling.

The water contractors, who agreed to a voluntary water reduction in 2021, will continue to see reduced water flow. The water saved will be used to help with water quality and salinity, and provide cool water pools for salmon and other fish in the delta.

A number of water districts around the delta objected to the water that would not be used by the contractors going for other purposes. Instead, they said the unused water should be allocated to them.

One major change approved by the board allows the methodology to be updated without board approval. The board believes this will allow its staff to implement changes faster while still allowing them to consult with stakeholders.

“We are headed toward a real time system of water rights, curtailments and improving water availability in this state,” said Joaquin Esquivel, chairman of the California State Water Resources Control Board. “This new methodology will be a benefit for everyone and allow us to make decisions about storage and water rights in the future.”

The staff noted the delta is a complex system to model and one of the goals of updating the methodology is to increase the resolution of the modeling so it could provide more timely information to both water managers and users.

“This is a very complex area and very complicated. Water rights can be complex to understand and administer in a fair way,” said board member Sean Maguire. “We don’t know how long this drought will go or how deep it will go. This resolution will help guide us as we move forward, to where we can fine tune it.”

Esquivel said the current document is not perfect and that more transparency with water districts and other agencies is needed. He also said the document will continue to change based on changing conditions.

“More progress has been made on water rights issues in California over the past couple of years than was made in the previous couple of decades, and more progress will continue to be made,” said Esquivel.

This article was first published at the Courthouse News Service.

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