Alameda County — Approximately 4,500 water rights holders have been ordered to stop pumping water from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, as water supplies across the state dwindle under withering drought conditions.
So far, local wineries, olive growers and other ag producers in the Tri-Valley do not expect the decision to impact them this year.
The Aug. 20 action, taken by the State Water Resources Control Board (SWRCB), aims to protect drinking water supplies, prevent salinity intrusion, and minimize impacts to fisheries and the environment. Water from the Delta provides drinking water for 25 million Californians and is used in the irrigation of three million acres of productive cropland.
Water rights holders who continue to divert water from the Delta in violation of the curtailment order face fines of up to $1,000 per day plus $2,500 for each acre-foot of water illegally diverted. An acre-foot of water equates to approximately 326,000 gallons.
“Curtailing water rights has an impact on livelihoods and economies, but it is painfully necessary as severe drought conditions this year and next could threaten health, safety and the environment,” said Erik Ekdahl, deputy director of the SWRCB Division of Water Rights. “We will do everything we can to make compliance both straightforward and fair. We are offering reporting and technical assistance to all right(s) holders and will also be regularly conducting inspections and investigating complaints to ensure that diverters are complying.”
While the curtailment order is not currently expected to impact Tri-Valley supplies, the area has already seen a diminished water allocation. Amparo Flores, Zone 7 Water Agency manager of integrated planning, explained that Zone 7 is not subject to the curtailment order, since it receives water from the State Water Project (SWP). That water is stored in Lake Oroville; Zone 7 pumps its allocated water after it is released from the reservoir into the Delta. However, the Department of Water Resources (DWR), the agency that manages the SWP, initially promised an allocation of 10% of each agency’s requested water supply for 2021. That allocation was later reduced to 5%.
Additionally, a letter sent by Zone 7 to its users of untreated water for irrigation warned of a challenging year ahead.
“There is a strong possibility that calendar year 2022 will be an even more difficult water year,” wrote Zone 7 Water Agency General Manager Valerie Pryor in the letter dated Aug. 23. “The primary SWP reservoir, Lake Oroville, has reached a record low level and continues to drop. Based on the current extremely low storage in the SWP water system ― and if dry conditions continue ― it is possible that Zone 7 may receive significantly reduced deliveries from the SWP in 2022.”
Grape grower Bob Taylor, owner of Retzleff Vineyards in Livermore, said that local farmers are lucky to have an enormous lake under the valley to recharge the water table.
“We’re okay this year, but next year, we have our fingers crossed,” Taylor said.
While he believed the SWRCB made the right decision as far as he could tell to address drought conditions, he said that other options to ensure water availability going forward could include deepening the wells.
Charles Crohare, whose family owns Olivina in Livermore, is a fourth-generation olive grower. He explained that olives are more drought-resistant than crops such as grapes or almonds, but he stressed the importance of utilizing water-saving measures on the farm. He said he uses drip emitters and irrigates at night to reduce evaporation.
“We do have to be concerned, but the other side of the coin is that with agriculture — although agriculture uses a lot of water — we apply the water right back down to the ground, which goes back down to the water table,” Crohare said. “It’s a little different than residential water, which gets treated, and unfortunately way too much of it gets pushed out into the ocean. So agriculture already does a great job in terms of utilizing water at a higher level, but we all have to work as a team.”
The SWRCB issued the Aug. 20 curtailment order for the Delta region after initially approving the regulations earlier in the month. Prior to the implementation of the order, approval by the Office of Administrative Law and filing with the Secretary of State was required. The order will remain in effect for one year, but it can be extended or repealed as conditions dictate.
The water board has taken other curtailment actions in Northern California, where the effects of the drought are particularly severe. A curtailment order for the upper Russian River was implemented in early August, and a similar action is imminent in the lower Russian River watershed. SWRCB approved emergency regulations that will shut off the pumps to the Scott and Shasta rivers for 3,500 holders of water rights in Siskiyou County. Bordering the State of Oregon, Siskiyou County predominantly produces field crops, such as alfalfa hay, oats, barley and herbs.
In addition to the curtailments, the state has taken a range of actions in recent months in reaction to worsening drought conditions. A drought barrier was constructed on the False River in June after receiving emergency approval. Its purpose is to keep saltwater from the San Francisco Bay from reaching the SWP pumps in Tracy.
“Keeping saltwater from intruding into the central Delta is essential as a large portion of the state’s fresh water for urban and agricultural use goes through this part of the Delta,” said Ted Craddock, SWP deputy director, in a press release issued when construction of the barrier commenced.
Gov. Gavin Newsom declared a drought emergency in Mendocino and Sonoma counties in April. That declaration has since been expanded to 50 of the state’s 58 counties. Last month, Newsom signed an executive order asking Californians to voluntarily reduce their water usage by 15%.
“The realities of climate change are nowhere more apparent than in the increasingly frequent and severe drought challenges we face in the West, and their devastating impacts on our communities, businesses and ecosystems,” Newsom said. “The entire state is in a drought today, and to meet this urgent challenge, we must all pull together and do our part to reduce water use as California continues to build a more climate resilient water system to safeguard the future of our state. We’re proud of the tremendous strides made to use water more efficiently and reduce water waste, but we can all find opportunities this summer to keep more water in reserve as this drought could stretch into next year and beyond.”