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SSJID leery of state’s intentions

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POSTED April 24, 2014 1:21 a.m.

One of California’s water rights gurus says the state wants to protect senior water rights such as the ones held by South San Joaquin Irrigation District.

SSJID officials say that’s great news — if that is really the case.

That said SSJID General Manager Jeff Shields said the district is taking a “trust and verify” approach to assurances made by Barbara Evoy, Deputy Director for Water Rights at the California State Water Resources Control Board, that a pending decision on possibly curtailing water rights will actually benefit and not severely impact the SSJID and the 170,000 urban residents and 45,000 acres of irrigated farmland they serve.

Evoy on Wednesday said the SSJID board is overreacting to a notice of possible water right curtailment sent to the district. The SSJID believes the wording of the notice opened the door to state action that could potentially cut off water to the district as Sacramento scrambles for ways to deal with too little water and too much demand as California’s drought marches into its third year.

Evoy noted the state intends to respect a pecking order of water rights with those the most junior — or established last — being cut off first if such action is necessary. All of SSJID’s water rights are rooted in pre-1914 adjudicated water rights. They are considered the strongest in place short of riparian water users that have continually reported the drawing of water during the last 100 years.

And while Evoy believes what the state is proposing to do is transparent and not muddy, the SSJID disagrees.

District officials noted that even before the run-off into New Melones Reservoir was projected to be anywhere near close to covering the superior water rights to 600,000 acre feet of water the SSJID holds with Oakdale Irrigation District, the Bureau of Reclamation was talking about selling additional water to Stockton East Water District. The only way the Bureau could do that this year is by cutting into the runoff that SSJID and OID are jointly entitled to or dipping into the SSJID’s conservation account at New Melones.

Evoy said stored water will not be impacted by any curtailment order, just run-off that would normally flow down the Stanislaus River.

And that is where the conflict starts.

The state’s posting of a notice explaining the potential for curtailment of water rights diversions states, “The right to divert surface water in California is based on the type of right being claimed and when the right was initiated. In times of drought and limited supply, the most recent (“junior”) right holder must be the first to discontinue use. Some riparian and pre-1914 water right holders may also receive a notice to stop diverting water if their diversions are downstream of reservoirs releasing stored water and there is no natural flow available for diversion.”

The SSJID has no natural flow for diversion from the Stanislaus River, is downstream from a reservoir releasing stored water, and is a pre-1914 water right holder. The district noted the language the state used and then took into account in the notice the district received earlier this month as an indication that the state intends to try and take water that SSJID holds superior rights to use.

If not, why send the notice especially since it was clear that certain pre-1914 water right holders are candidates to curtailment of diversions if they meet the criteria that the SSJID apparently does.

Based on the notice they received, the SSJID started diverting more water into Woodward Reservoir to prepare for what they contend would be “an illegal” effort to essentially seize SSJID water. The district is also preparing to go to court, if necessary, to stridently defend its water rights.

The original notice for the potential curtailment of water right diversions further notes, “If you are in a water short area, you should be looking into alternative water supplies for your water needs. Alternative supplies include groundwater wells, purchased water supplies under contractual arrangements, and recycled wastewater. Water right holders are cautioned that groundwater resources are significantly depleted in some areas. Water right holders in these areas should make planting and other decisions accordingly.”

Evoy noted the state will continue to assess water conditions in the coming months to determine whether they will proceed with curtailment orders.

 Such an order issued to the SSJID would impact not just farmers but also domestic water supplies for the cities of Manteca, Lathrop, and Tracy.

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