Water rapidly vanishing in California’s biggest delta

Reuters / Lucy Nicholson
Fresh water is mysteriously disappearing from the Sacramento-San Jose Joaquin River Delta, amid California’s worst recorded drought. The blame is being pointed at farmers, who have used the water resources for irrigation for generations.

Following complaints from two state agencies, the Department of Water Resources and the US Bureau of Reclamation, an investigation has been launched into how much water Delta farmers are taking.

The Delta, which includes large swathes of farmland, is made up of a large inland estuary to the east of San Francisco, which is fed by rivers flowing down from the Sierra Nevada and northern mountain ranges.

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As a result of the ongoing drought, which is now in its fourth year, officials have been concerned that salty bay water was backing up into the Delta, as there was not enough fresh water getting through. To combat this, in June, water was released from Lake Oroville amounting to “thousands of acre-feet of water a day for a couple of weeks,” said Nancy Vogel, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Water Resources.

The fact that the famers were using so much water from the storage, sparked the investigation. However, officials are not sure if farmers are acting illegally and taking water they should not be using.

“We don’t know if there were illegal diversions going on at this time. Right now, a large information gap exists,”
said Vogel.

However, California’s century old water right system is doubtless complicating the situation. Historically, people with senior water rights can take as much water as they want, even during a drought.

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450 farmers were told to report their water diversions and Katherine Mrowka, the state water board enforcement manager, said that the vast majority responded.

The state governor Jerry Brown has said that if the drought continues, the water rights system, which is built into the Californian law, may have to be overhauled.

But Delta farmers are likely to resist any changes.

“If there’s surplus water, hey, I don’t mind sharing it. I don’t want anybody with junior water rights leapfrogging my senior water rights just because they have more money and more political clout,” said Rudy Mussi, a Delta farmer.

The situation is worse in the Central Valley, away from the Delta.

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Shawn Coburn who farms 1,500 acres (607 hectares), 100 miles (160 kilometers) south of the Delta, said that he thinks he will receive 45 percent less water than he expects as a senior rights water user. On another 1,500 acres where he has junior water rights he will receive no water for the second year in a row.

“I don’t like to pick on other farmers, even if it wasn’t a drought year. The only difference is I don’t have a pipe in the Delta I can suck willy-nilly whenever I want,” said Coburn.

Last month Brown introduced California’s first mandatory water restrictions. A draft of measures will see golf courses, campuses and other places with large landscapes make significant cuts to water use. New homes and developments will not be irrigated with water that could be used for human needs and there will be a complete ban on the watering of ornamental grass on public streets.

New projects are set to be put in place to replace 50 million square feet (4.6 million square meters) of lawns throughout the state with drought tolerant plants and landscaping. There will also be a consumer rebate system to replace old appliances with more water efficient models.

But as Californians feel the heat from the worst drought ever recorded, energy companies in the sunshine state have used 70 million gallons (264 million litres) of water for hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, last year.