Northern California receives more annual rain and snow than Southern California, with 75% of the state’s precipitation falling in the watersheds north of Sacramento. Yet amid a drought, it seems people in the north are conserving water by letting their lawns turn brown and taking shorter showers as districts and municipalities impose mandatory water-use restrictions, while urban areas of the arid south are lush and green with well-watered gardens and lawns.
Two major California water agencies have settled a lawsuit that once threatened to derail a multi-state agreement to protect a river that serves millions of people in the U.S. West amid gripping drought.
The Imperial Irrigation District, the largest single recipient of Colorado River water, sued the Metropolitan Water District twice in the past two years. The agencies announced Monday they have reached a settlement that resolves both lawsuits.
As Arizona’s population continues to swell by record numbers, cities and towns housing the transplants are looking for ways to increase their water supply.
That search has pitted the growing Town of Queen Creek against counties along the Colorado River. Cibola, Arizona in La Paz County sits near the border with California directly on the river. The population ranges from 250 to 350 people depending on the time of year according to La Paz County Supervisor Holly Irwin.
Phil Fine stands in a parched field and watches a harvester gnaw through his carrot seed crop, spitting clouds of dust in its wake. Cracked dirt lines empty irrigation canals, and dust devils and tumbleweeds punctuate a landscape in shades of brown.
Across an invisible line separating Fine’s irrigation district from the next, it’s another world. Automated sprinklers hiss as they douse crops, cattle munch on green grass and water bubbles through verdant farmland.
To expedite the delivery of much-needed drinking water to coastal Mendocino County residents whose wells have gone dry, the California State Water Resources Control Board has amended its previous curtailment orders to allow the city of Ukiah to draw water from the Russian River for emergency supplies.
“The State Water Board has pre-approved a health and human safety exemption allowing the city of Ukiah to provide emergency supplies to (coastal Mendocino County communities),” said Erik Ekdahl, deputy director of the Division of Water Rights, explaining Wednesday that the board did not want “bureaucracy to get in the way of providing emergency drinking water to people who really need it.”
South San Joaquin Irrigation District is suing the state in a bid to avoid a curtailment order from creating severe water shortages in 2022 for 200,000 Manteca, Lathrop, and Tracy residents and growers farming nearly 55,000 acres
SSJID, along with Oakdale Irrigation District, over a century ago secured first-in-line rights under state law for the initial 600,000 acre feet of annual water runoff in the Stanislaus River Basin.
A curtailment order issued Aug. 20 by the State Water Resources Control Board is essentially seizing the water the SSJID and OID legally own and prevents the agencies from diverting and storing Stanislaus River runoff in Donnells, Beardsley, New Melones and Tulloch Reservoirs.
Driving between her northern Central Valley rice fields with the family dog in tow, fifth-generation farmer Kim Gallagher points out the window to shorebirds, egrets and avocets fluttering across a thousand-acre sea of green flooded in six inches of water.
“People say agriculture uses so much water, but if you knew who lived in these areas and if you saw the animals taking advantage of it, you’d think there’s a lot more going on here,” Gallagher said. “This is where you’re going to find a Great Blue Heron. If you don’t want that type of bird then we shouldn’t be growing rice.”
California farmers near the Arizona border with the oldest rights to Colorado River water will reap $38 million over three years to not plant some of their fields and leave extra water in the rapidly declining Lake Mead reservoir.
Located roughly halfway between Los Angeles and Phoenix, growers near the City of Blythe in Riverside County have first priority to the river water. They hold rights that stretch back to 1877, superseding 40 million customers in eight states who also depend on it.
Water cuts aimed at farmers amid the West’s megadrought have set the stage for bitter legal and political fights over one of the most overlooked water uses—the right of water to remain in streams to sustain fish and endangered species, lawyers say.
The drought is poised to call that right into question, pitting drinking water providers and food growers against conservationists who want to keep streams wet so that fish can survive.
California doesn’t have enough water to meet all demands even in wet years, and when drought strikes the competition becomes, to put it mildly, intense.
State and federal officials who must ration the restricted supply are beset with pleas from farmers, municipal water systems and advocates for the environment.
However, water managers must also contend with a bewildering array of water rights, some of which date to the 19th century, as well as long-standing contractual obligations and laws, both statutes and judicial decrees, on maintaining flows for spawning salmon and other wildlife.