Decades-old water rights in California halted amid drought

FILE - In this file photo taken Monday, May 18, 2015, farmer Gino Celli climbs out of a irrigation canal that is covered in dried salt on a field he farms near Stockton, Calif.  California, grappling with drought, exacted the broadest water cuts on record Friday, June 12, 2015, among farmers and others holding some of the strongest water rights in the state, directing thousands in one of the country’s prime farm regions to stop all pumping from three major waterways.  (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli, File)
FILE - In this file photo taken Monday, May 18, 2015, farmer Gino Celli climbs out of a irrigation canal that is covered in dried salt on a field he farms near Stockton, Calif. California, grappling with drought, exacted the broadest water cuts on record Friday, June 12, 2015, among farmers and others holding some of the strongest water rights in the state, directing thousands in one of the country’s prime farm regions to stop all pumping from three major waterways. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli, File)

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — Despite California’s drought, Richard and Danna Jones’ cattle grazing pasture has stayed green thanks to water flowing free from a gulch claimed by his grandfather in 1911.

Their nearly ironclad right to water was suspended Friday when state regulators ordered them to stop taking the water for their rural property east of Redding. They are among more than 100 senior water rights holders told for the first time in decades that major waterways in California’s agriculture-rich Central Valley are too dry to meet demand, but aren’t expected to be the last.

“The place is going to look like hell,” said Danna Jones. She and her husband depend on money from letting cattle graze on their land to pay off property taxes.

“It’s going to dry up and become a star-thistle patch. It’s not going to be good for us.”

California’s mandatory water curtailment has moved from cities, towns and farmers with less iron-clad water rights to those historically shielded from cuts. Thousands of people, water districts and entities with claims dating before 1914 have long enjoyed nearly guaranteed access to water, and some are threatening lawsuits to keep it this way as California’s drought drags into a fourth year.

Among them are two small irrigation districts serving farmers near the San Joaquin River planning to go to court next week. Their attorney Jeanne Zolezzi said the districts serve small family farms that depend on taking water from the San Joaquin River watershed to grow permanent crops such as apricots and walnuts, and have little backup supplies in wells or reservoirs.

“A lot of trees would die, and a lot of people would go out of business,” said Zolezzi. “We are not talking about a 25 percent cut like imposed on urban. This is a 100 percent cut: No water supplies.”

Economists and agriculture experts say growing of some crops will shift in the short-term to regions with more water, so the water cuts are expected to have little immediate effect on food prices.

Officials with the State Water Resources Control Board, which issues the cutback orders, defend their legal authority to order cutbacks for those with prized claims during the worst drought on record.

They say the hardship to farmers and others are a consequence of California’s harsh water rights system. Those ordered to stop diverting from rivers and streams have other options, including tapping groundwater, buying water at rising costs, using previously stored water or leaving fields unplanted.

“It’s going to be different story for each one of them, and a struggle for all of them,” said Thomas Howard, the board’s executive director.

California water law was built around preserving the water rights of those who staked claims to waterways more than a century ago or have property that abuts the rivers and streams.

It’s the first time since a 1977 drought that California has directed a significant number of senior water rights holders to stop pumping because of drought and amounts to the most widespread cuts ever among those with some of the state’s strongest water rights.

The board warns that farmers and communities ordered to stop taking water from rivers and streams Friday are the first of many senior water rights holders to face curtailments this year.

Jonas Minton, an adviser at the private Planning and Conservation League environmental group, said droughts of this scale are not unprecedented in California.

What is different, he said, is that the state has grown to a population of 38 million and has vast acres of farmland to irrigate. He said state bureaucrats or environmentalists can’t be blamed.

“Today’s curtailments are not being done by choice,” Minton said. “They’re a reaction to the reality of the shrinking water supply.”

Others think the state is taking a sweeping approach to conservation without regard to individual circumstances. Kent Morgan, whose ranch 50 miles east of Sacramento has been in the family for three generations, said he depends on “a minuscule” amount of water from a creek on his property to raise several cattle and a vegetable garden for two families.

“For them to tell me not to use what flows through my land is not what my great-grandfather was thinking when he bought it,” said Morgan. “There’s a few of us pioneer families that are getting totally screwed.”

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AP writer Ellen Knickmeyer in San Francisco contributed to this report.

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