“The California State Water Resources Control Board in June told holders of claims staked more than a century ago to turn off the spigots or face daily fines of as much as $1,000 and $2,500 per acre-foot. The agency then was hit by at least five lawsuits.
The warnings came as a four-year, record-setting drought squeezed California’s $43 billion agricultural industry and led to mandatory, statewide water restrictions for the first time. Cattle rancher Mario Arnaudo lost the main supply he used to irrigate 700 acres (280 hectares) of alfalfa and pasture grass when his district, which held water rights more than a century old, cut him off after getting a notice.
“That’s all our income,” said Arnaudo, 21, whose family has owned his ranch east of San Francisco since the 1960s. “If this continues, we’ll have to sell off a lot of our herd and start laying off our employees.”
There are about 14,620 so-called senior water right claims, according to Timothy Moran, a water board spokesman. Some predate 1914, when permitting laws were established.
The state has sent notices to holders of about 300 of those claims for whom there’s no water to accommodate them. Fifty-five percent have agreed to comply, Moran said.
California’s hierarchical system for doling out water favors those who hold rights older than 1914. Those with claims after 1914 are typically the first and only group to face curbs in a shortage. They began getting notices in April.
“It does point to the severity of the drought and the fact that we need to get to the next level of water-rights users,” said Doug Parker, director of the California Institute for Water Resources at the University of California. “Some of it’s posturing and putting up a fight and saying, ‘Look, we’re not going to take this easily.”
For Jeff Shields, general manager of the South San Joaquin Irrigation District in Manteca, it seems wrong that the state has told farmers they can no longer take water to which they’ve had access since Millard Fillmore was president. The agency is suing the state.”
Read more: Bloomberg