California Officials Approve Riparian Rights Holders' Voluntary Plan to Save Water

By Carolyn Whetzel

May 26 — California water officials have signed off on a proposal from riparian water rights holders in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta to voluntarily cut water usage to avoid mandatory curtailment orders later this summer due to continued drought.

Under the proposal the State Water Resources Control Board approved May 22, participating farmers would reduce, from 2015 levels, water use by 25 percent or fallow 25 percent of the land.

“The action we're announcing today is unusual, but we're in unusual times,” SWRCB Chairman Felicia Marcus said in a conference call with reporters. The proposal offers growers some certainty at the beginning of the planting season and insulates them from potentially deeper water cuts later, Marcus said.

Farmers interested in participating in the voluntary program have until June 1 to submit specific plans to achieve the water savings, the state board's Delta Water Master Michael George said. Only riparian water rights holders in the delta are eligible, he said.

The delta program, however, could be a template for voluntary agreements with other holders of riparian rights, George said.

Riparian water rights are the most senior and secure. Held by landowners whose property adjoins rivers and streams, the rights are curtailed collectively by a shared percentage, George said.

Delta farmland abuts natural streams and sloughs, so riparian water rights claims are more extensive there than in other agricultural areas of the state, George said. Still, the state won't know until after the June 1 deadline how many growers will participate in the program, he said.

Attorney Optimistic About Participation 

“I'm optimistic,” Jennifer Spaletta, the Lodi-based attorney who brought the delta farmers' proposal to the state water board, told Bloomberg BNA May 26. “From what I hear, there will be pretty high participation.

“But it's not the numbers of farmers that is important; it's the number of acres involved,” she said.

Growers are making decisions now about what to plant, so timing is important, she said. Farmers can forego a second growing season for some crops or yields to save water, Spaletta said.

State officials would “trust but verify” the voluntary commitments to cut water use and fallow land, George said. Verification would be based on information the farmers provide and “spot” checks, he said.

“There is a strong ethic and interest within the delta to make sure there is no cheating” to ensure “the credibility of the program,” George said.

Junior Water Rights Holders Already Curtailed 

The SWRCB has already curtailed junior water rights holders in the Sacramento and San Joaquin river watersheds for the second year in a row. Earlier this year, the water board warned the more senior and riparian water rights holders that curtailments were likely this summer.

Many senior water rights holders, however, believe the SWRCB lacks authority to order them to stop diverting surface waters to irrigate their crops.

Senior water rights holder “will be unhappy” and “there will be litigation,” SWRCB's Marcus said. “It will be the first time senior rights” have been curtailed, she said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Carolyn Whetzel in Los Angeles at cwhetzel@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Larry Pearl at lpearl@bna.com