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State Water Curtailment Order Prompts Lawsuit

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Sonora, CA — An emergency drought order issued by the State Water Resources Control Board last month to curtail water diversions has triggered a lawsuit.

On Thursday, the Oakdale (OID) and South San Joaquin Irrigation Districts (SSJID) joined the San Joaquin Tributaries Association (SJTA), which includes Turlock and Modesto Irrigation Districts and the City and County of San Francisco, in filing a lawsuit against the board in Fresno Superior Court.

At issue is whether the board has the authority to prevent the water agencies from diverting and storing water. For OID and SSJID that impacts Stanislaus River runoff into the Donnells, Beardsley, New Melones, and Tulloch Reservoirs. Both Districts relay they have the ability to use water previously stored behind those reservoirs and anticipate no immediate impacts to their agricultural and municipal customers.

The water curtailments are necessary, according to the board, to keep saltwater from building up in the Delta, protect fish, and maintain drinking water supplies for cities. Water agencies say the problem is that the order has no specific end date for when irrigation districts can once again divert and store water. The lawsuit contends that violates the districts’ due process rights.

“Concerns about next year’s water are developing now; we want to make sure we’re in a good position,” said Peter Rietkerk, SSJID’s general manager. “No one knows – and the state won’t say – how and when the decision will be made to lift the order.”

As California suffering from a second straight year of drought that is affecting water supplies across the state, OID and SSJID argue there is no telling what may happen next year if rain and snowfall are well below average for the third year in a row.

“It’s really about next irrigation season,” said Steve Knell, OID’s general manager. “We want to put ourselves in the best position so that whatever rain comes, we can capture it, store it and make it available. It all comes down to how much rain and snow. If we’re looking at another dry year, similar to this year, there may have to be cutbacks.”

Knell added that runoff in the Stanislaus River watershed this year was about 350,000 acre-feet – well below the historic average of about 1 million acre-feet into New Melones Reservoir, making 2021 the third-driest year on record going back nearly 100 years ago.

New Melones, managed by the federal Bureau of Reclamation and the state’s fourth-largest reservoir with a capacity of 2.4 million acre-feet as of yesterday held about 899,000 acre-feet. That is about 37% of total capacity and only 65% of what it typically has in early September, detail district officials.

“This year, the Stanislaus River has been a lifeline to the rest of the state,” Rietkerk said. “But for an already oversubscribed river system, how can the Stanislaus sustain our Districts, the communities we serve, and the needs of the rest of the state? Our Districts and our partners in the SJTA often have no other recourse other than to file these lawsuits and fight for our communities.”

Water agency officials maintain that they are  “gravely concerned” over the way the Bureau has managed New Melones water this summer. Reporting that from late June through mid-August, the Bureau increased flows in the Stanislaus River from 350 cubic feet per second to 1,500 cfs. With the extra water ending up in the Delta and then the ocean. They add that was intended to make up for what was not being released at Shasta and Oroville Reservoirs because state and federal water officials wanted to retain cold water in those two lakes to release this fall to help protect spawning salmon on the Sacramento River and its tributaries.

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