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Drought: Environmentalists, Agencies, Landowners Fight over Water Rights

Three years of severe drought is causing water shortfalls for the California Department of Water Resources and U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. Consequently, they are accusing farmers and landowners from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta of illegally taking water which was allocated for consumers in other parts of the state.

For the first time in California history, the two powerful water bureaus are seeking help from the state board that oversees water rights disbursements to iron out the mess and control illegal diversion of water. 

According to the Sacramento Bee, the heart of the controversy is whether Delta farmers are taking more water than their rights allow them to by rerouting not only natural flows of water but also the water that the DWR and Reclamation had allocated in their reservoirs for their metropolitan and agricultural water customers.

“We recognize that we’re suffering losses of storage, but we don’t have the data to determine precisely where,” declared DWR representative Nancy Vogel. “Based on what we see, it indicates a potential unlawful diversion of stored water.”

Yet, the farmers from the Delta say that just isn’t the case and have denied the unlawful diversion allegations and submitted several letters to the water board protesting the call for an investigation. George Hartmann, a lawyer for property owners on McDonald Island, a 6,000-acre Delta farming tract near Stockton, argues that “It’s just so silly that you would think it’s mainly a harassment technique.”

Moreover, the Bee reports that the landowners contend that the investigation is a desperate ploy by the DWR and Reclamation to placate their customers. The landowners are arguing that the issues have been addressed as recently as 2012, when the state water board investigated more than 1,000 water rights claims in the south and central Delta and found just 12 cases that merited enforcement action.

Dante Nomellini Sr., a Stockton attorney for the Central Delta Water Agency, said the DWR and Reclamation simply want to ease the water shortage for the agricultural and urban agencies that buy water from them. “The proposed emergency actions are clearly for the purpose of increasing exports from the Delta,” Nomellini argued in a letter to the state board.

“We’re not seeing what we would expect in terms of outflow in the Delta, and we want more information,” Vogel said. “Things are so tight this year in the system that we’re trying to preserve stored water to meet water quality standards, for waterfowl sanctuaries, and for municipal supplies for health and safety.”

Adding grease to the fire, the Bee reports that on Wednesday the California Sportfishing Protection Alliance accused the DWR and Reclamation of committing similar offenses by illegally diverting water from the San Joaquin, Mokelumne, Cosumnes, and Calaveras rivers. Bill Jennings, an executive director for the Protection Alliance, contends that the DWR and Reclamation have zero water rights on these rivers.

The DWR and Reclamation have no water rights on these rivers, said alliance executive director Bill Jennings, yet they divert the water from these rivers when they pump from the Delta. “Basically, the Bureau and DWR opened a Pandora’s box,” said Jennings. “The water board needs to begin to unravel this.”




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