A curtailment order issued Friday by the state Department of Water Resources means the faucets of at least 9,650 San Joaquin County residents may go dry in the coming months.
Byron-Bethany Irrigation District that supplies Mountain House west of Tracy had been told if a curtailment order was issued in diverting water, the district would cut off their supplies to the community. South San Joaquin Irrigation District, which has been talking with Mountain House officials to determine if they could help if such a situation arose, now may not be able to do so under the state edict.
The SSJID has its own issues with the state order impacting water rights secured between 1903 and 1914:
*SSJID property owners bought the water rights before 1914 when the state had no jurisdiction. Friday’s order essentially establishes jurisdiction 111 years after the fact.
*The state is essentially seizing water rights without due process.
*No one has filed a complaint that SSJID is violating their superior water rights. Actually, no such water rights exist on the Stanislaus River older than those held by SSJID and the Oakdale Irrigation District.
SSJID General Manager Jeff Shields said that he appreciates the situation the Department of Water Resources is in, dealing with a fourth year of severe drought impacting 38 million Californians. But he noted water rights exist to provide order in situations such as the current drought. The state’s order throws the entire water rights system into chaos.
“Emergencies are not an excuse to seize power so you can put in place a new world order for water rights,” Shields said.
For the current irrigation year, SSJID has already diverted water into storage and will not be impacted by the curtailment order in its ability to deliver reduced water supplies as promised to farmers throughout the district and the three cities it serves — Manteca, Lathrop, and Tracy.
It can, however, impact them from helping neighboring cities and farmers in San Joaquin County given that May’s snow in the Sierra that was twice what fell in December and January improved runoff for the district.
“We look like we may be in a position to help others as we will have more water than we anticipated,” Shields said. “Six weeks ago, everyone was projecting no natural run-off by mid-June. Thanks to May we have 600 cubic feet (per second) flowing in now but that won’t last for long.”
Even if the SSJID wanted to help areas such as Mountain House that may soon be without water they can’t under the state’s blanket order issued Friday,
Also the curtailment order will significantly impact 2016 water supplies for the SSJID if the district doesn’t take steps to challenge it.
“We have some water rights that date back to 1853 that we can divert water into Donnells Reservoir but that’s it,” Shields said.
Shields indicated the district plans to fight the state “with whatever means is needed” to protect its historic and legally adjudicated water rights.
“The water rights weren’t a gift from the government,” Shields said. “They were secured by district property owners and farmers who paid for them. Some lost their farms during the Depression because they couldn’t afford to continue paying taxes (that paid to secure those rights).”
The curtailment order was issued for the entire watersheds of the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers that also includes the Stanislaus River.
The Stanislaus River is in the worst shape of all rivers within that watershed due to how the state and federal government have been operating water releases to help fish.
The New Melones Reservoir as of Thursday was at roughly one-sixth of its 2.4 million acre-foot capacity with 435,132 acre feet in storage. Projections indicate storage could slip below 100,000 acre feet by Oct. 1.
“In 1909 the landowners from Oakdale to Manteca formed the Oakdale and South San Joaquin Irrigation Districts,” Shields said. “These landowners indebted their property to the tune of $1.9 million in order to purchase water rights and build dams and canals to deliver water to their land. No federal or state tax dollars were used to appropriate, adjudicate and implement these property (water) rights.”
Shields said regulatory agencies, in an effort to address an emergency, are prone to dispense with Constitutional protections which they fear might inhibit their actions. As the State Water Board exercises its jurisdiction over the state’s water by imposing curtailment orders, Shields said they must respect due process. It is imperative, he added, that they do not use this emergency as a rationale to thwart the water rights priority process and create chaos where order should prevail.
Shields referenced the writings of Chief Justice Hughes in 1934 to argue the state is exceeding its authority, “Emergency does not create power. Emergency does not increase granted power or remove or diminish the restrictions imposed upon power granted or reserved. The Constitution was adopted in a period of grave emergency. Its grants of power to the Federal Government and its limitations of the power of the States were determined in the light of emergency. What power was thus imposed are the questions which have always been, and always will be, the subject of close examination under our constitutional system.”