By Kurtis Alexander
When California officials struck an unprecedented conservation deal Friday with a group of farmers who have the strongest claims on the state's dwindling water supply, it showed no one was immune from the fallout of the drought.
Under the agreement, many growers in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta will be given the option of reducing water use by 25 percent in exchange for an assurance that the state won't come down harder on them in the near future.
While it was the farmers who offered the bargain, they did so under immense pressure. This week, California water officials are expected to take the extraordinary step of ordering other farms with senior water rights to cut their usage, a directive not issued since the 1970s.
Making sure this mandate is met -- and, more importantly, figuring out how much water the move will save -- won't be easy. State oversight of water is hindered by old and incomplete methods of tracking water use, complicating how officials target cuts and how they measure compliance.
Better information sought
The state plans to enforce cuts to irrigation through farm visits, measuring river flows and the honor system. But while California has made recent strides to improve its accounting of water, the amount flowing to farms is obscured by too little data, experts say.
"You can't make as good a use of the water resources as you'd like without better information," said Jay Lund, director of the Center for Watershed Sciences at UC Davis, who has written extensively about hurdles to effective water management. "The curtailments to water rights holders are a necessary move, but we haven't made it easy for the state to do its job."
As four years of drought dries up rivers and reservoirs, state officials have begun efforts to stabilize California's water supplies. Starting next month, cities and towns will face mandatory cutbacks, while thousands of farmers have already been told to stop their typical draws from rivers and creeks.
Now, big changes loom for even those with the state's most senior water rights. These property owners have claims to diverting flows from waterways that date to before 1914 and have consequently avoided the pain of cuts because state law requires "curtailments" to be made in order of seniority.
State officials confirmed Thursday that curtailments will be announced this week for senior water rights holders in the San Joaquin River watershed, which stretches between the foothills outside Fresno to the San Francisco Bay. A decision about cutting senior water rights holders elsewhere will follow.
While farmers and rural irrigation districts hold a large share of the state's almost 4,000 senior water rights, private corporations and local governments also have claims. San Francisco, for example, staked rights in 1902 at the watershed in Yosemite National Park where Hetch Hetchy Reservoir now stands.
"All of our folks are definitely engaged in the conversation," said Tyrone Jue, a spokesman for the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, which manages Hetch Hetchy. "This does affect our ability to operate the system and determines how much water we can provide to customers."
The state's decision to advance up the ladder of water rights is not only frustrating senior water rights holders, but also renewing questions about the state's ability to restrict -- and ultimately save -- water.
"When we issue curtailments, they're more approximate than they are in other western states," Lund said. "We should be looking at how we can make our water management more effective."
'Operating in the dark'
Without better water information, Lund and others said, state officials may miscalculate how much water needs to be saved. As a result, they may issue overly broad conservation orders and needlessly harm property owners -- or, conversely, not go far enough to protect water supplies.
"Given the lack of data and the unprecedented nature of the drought, the state is operating in the dark," said Leon Szeptycki, executive director of Stanford University's Water in the West program.
The problems begin with information gaps inherent to the state's water-reporting policies.
Some senior water rights holders didn't have to document how much water they use until legislation was passed in 2009. And today, many landowners report their use only every three years, leaving water officials making supply decisions with old data.
There are, as well, too few state inspectors to ensure that water reports are filled out properly. In some cases, proof of water rights hasn't even been verified.
Then there's the question of technology. Many of the state's rivers and streams lack the water gauges and satellite cameras that are used more comprehensively to track supplies in other parts of the country, such as Idaho.
State officials acknowledge that water information hasn't always been as good as it could be. But they say that's changing.
"We've done a lot this year to improve the accuracy of the data we have," said Kathy Mrowka, manager of water rights enforcement at the State Water Resources Control Board.
In February, the water board ordered hundreds of senior water rights holders in the delta, where accounting has been murky, to furnish proof of their rights and declare how much they're drawing. The state is reviewing the data.
The water board also has marched out inspectors to ensure water reports are accurate, and that those who have been ordered to stop pumping have complied. The agency's ability to impose fines for breaches -- up to $10,000 a day -- has been streamlined. Mrowka's crew expects to make 1,000 site visits to follow up on this year's curtailment orders.
"We borrowed resources from other agencies in addition to redirecting staff to take care of these inspections," she said.
The crackdown isn't universally welcomed. In the delta, where landowners generally hold some of the strongest water claims, critics say decades of shoddy water management is prompting the state to overreach and dive too deeply into the pecking order of water rights.
"They basically did nothing for years, and all of sudden they say now we got to do something," said Lynn Miller, 67, who has senior water rights along the San Joaquin River outside Stockton and farms alfalfa, oats and cucumbers.
Miller is part of the coalition that brokered Friday's deal with the state. The landowners, a group whose water rights are tied to their location on a river or stream, offered to reduce their water use by 25 percent from 2013 consumption, or fallow a quarter of their fields, in exchange for a guarantee that they won't face additional cuts this year.
Similar deals possible
Water board officials said the concession by the farmers seemed fair and that they may extend similar arrangements to other parts of the state. They said water savings from the limited program, though, won't do enough to prevent the widespread curtailments on senior water rights holders that are expected to come.
Miller, who said opting into the state deal is probably her best option, added that giving up a quarter of her river water won't be easy for her business, which has been in her family since 1871.
"We're going to have to make some decisions about whether we can go forward with planting the cucumbers," she said. "This is really going to cut the bottom line."
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