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Calif. senior rights holders could be next to lose water

Tim Hearden

Capital Press

As junior water rights holders throughout California's Central Valley have received stop-diversion orders because of the drought, holders of senior and riparian rights fear they could be next.

Capital Press

COTTONWOOD, Calif. — Like many of his fellow California farmers and ranchers, Bruce Miller is worried about his water rights.

Miller, owner of Miller Ranch in Shingletown, Calif., draws water from a nearby creek and stream with rights issued before 1914, when the state passed legislation that formalized its surface water permit system.

He says he received a notice that the State Water Resources Control Board, which has issued stop-diversion orders to junior rights holders throughout the Central Valley, may consider curtailing senior and riparian rights, too, amid California’s crippling drought.

“That’s my major concern,” Miller said. “It says that curtailment is not an issue ‘at this time’, but knowing the state and the seriousness of the drought, I’m concerned.”

Miller was one of more than 100 landowners who attended a meeting here June 11 to discuss the possible loss of their water rights. Local Farm Bureau and cattlemen’s groups called the meeting after growers throughout the region received letters informing them that their ability to divert from local creeks and streams could be in jeopardy, said Larry Forero, a University of California Cooperative Extension farm advisor based in Redding.

So far, curtailments have mostly applied to appropriative rights holders. But those with senior and riparian rights granted to land directly abutting waterways could be next, said Jack Rice, associate counsel for the California Farm Bureau Federation.

“One thing to bear in mind … is that the California constitution limits all water use to be reasonable and beneficial,” Rice told landowners gathered at the Shasta Livestock Auction Yard. “The doctrine of reasonable use … is something that the water board has put a lot of interest in in taking water away from water rights holders and giving it to a stream.”

The water board is slated to discuss emergency curtailments of senior and riparian rights at its next meeting July 1, noted Rice, who said the CFBF was slated to meet with water board employees about the issue next week.

Among organizations following the matter closely is the California Cattlemen’s Association, which told members in a newsletter that it will “continue to explore alternative avenues” for protecting their water rights.

Justin Oldfield, the CCA’s vice president of government relations, said the organization wants to make sure that “the process is sound” if curtailments expand to pre-1914 water rights.

“Obviously we’re concerned about any limited use of water for agricultural needs, but of course we do need to be cautious,” Oldfield said, adding that determining the best uses of water amid a severe drought is “always a balancing act.”

The board’s actions come despite a report last month by The Associated Press that asserted companies, farmers and cities with water rights that pre-date 1914 are exempt this year from mandatory cuts.

“We fundamentally disagree with their statement that senior water rights holders are exempt from curtailments,” water board spokesman George Kostyrko said. “It’s not the case.”

Indeed, the water board on June 9 issued curtailment orders to all water right holders on Deer Creek in Tehama County, a significant Sacramento River tributary, to ensure minimum flows for migratory fish. The order applies to numerous diversion points for timber giant Sierra Pacific Industries, whose earliest right dates to 1900, as well as more than a dozen other users.

However, the order will be lifted as soon as Department of Fish and Wildlife wardens determine that specific runs of state and federally protected fish are completed, Kostyrko said.

At the Shasta Livestock meeting, some producers urged Rice to ask a judge to put a stay on the orders.

“This is our income,” said Tim DeAtley, a Millville, Calif., rancher. “Is the state water board going to compensate us for this (lost) income?”

But Rice was noncommittal about taking legal action, noting that the state constitution does give the water agency the authority to regulate water use just as zoning laws regulate the use of private land. Oldfield agreed.

“The constitution makes it very clear the water board does have jurisdiction (over water uses) should they be deemed unreasonable,” he said in an interview.

For producers such as rancher John Maas, whose land in Shasta County has a water right dating to the 1800s, the situation is unnerving.

“If they start taking our water, we have two problems,” he said. “One is a ruined ranch. But two, a fire danger that we can’t do anything about. It’s potentially ruinous.”


California State Water Resources Control Board: http://www.swrcb.ca.gov

California Farm Bureau Federation: http://cfbf.com

California Cattlemen’s Association: http://www.calcattlemen.org


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