Farmers plan to fight for water rights
by Michael Langley
Jul 18, 2014 | 4032 views | 1 1 comments | 17 17 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Water rights meeting
John Herrick, an attorney for South Delta Water Agency, speaks to farmers at the Roberts-Union Farm Center, 4925 W. Howard Road, about water rights issues Friday  morning.  Glenn Moore/Tracy Press
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Some Delta farmers are being advised that they have dodged a bullet from the California Department of Water Resources about whether they can continue to water their land from the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers.

In a meeting of more than 200 farmers Friday at the Roberts-Union Farm Center, 4925 W. Howard Road, attorneys John Herrick of the South Delta Water Agency and Dante Nomellini Sr. of the Central Delta Water Agency briefed the group about their talks with Department of Water Resources staff members.

“State board staff and board members believe that there isn’t any water available for Delta riparians to divert right now,” Herrick said, referring to those farmers with riparian — riverside — water rights for land adjacent to streams in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

Herrick said that although farmers had received notices from the Department of Water Resources in late May asking them to detail their water claims, there would likely be no movement to curtail their water rights this season.

“This is positive in that there’s not really a big pending (regulation) now to order all riparians not to (irrigate),” he said.

Herrick also addressed proposed fines of up to $500 a day for farmers who irrigate when they are not entitled to Delta water. He said that the State Water Resources Control Board — which sets regulations about water use and quality — was unlikely to fine anyone immediately, which would allow farmers to fight the regulations.

“We do know we dodged a bullet, and we do know it looks like virtually nobody will be threatened or fined before they get some sort of hearing,” Herrick said, which will allow irrigation districts to present scientific evidence that supports the farmers.

Nomellini said the gravest threat to farming from the state right now is the relaxing of water quality standards: “I think we’re going to make it through this. The question is going to be: How bad is the water quality going to get?”

According to studies published by the United States Department of Agriculture, problems with salinity — the level of dissolved salts in the water — reduce the productivity of both irrigated and nonirrigated agricultural lands.

Nomellini said that emergency regulations adopted by the Department of Water Resources after the declaration of a drought emergency Jan. 17 by Gov. Jerry Brown eroded the standards for water salinity for farmers who draw from the Delta.

In 1987, the State Water Resources Control Board adopted Order WQ 85-1, which included an average standard of salinity for water for Delta irrigation of 450 parts per million of salt per liter of water. On April 29, the Department of Water Resources asked the board for a modification of the salt standard through Nov. 15, to “minimize potential impacts from a continuation of drought in 2015.”

The modification order, signed May 2 by board executive director Thomas Howard, was the eighth change to the regulations since the beginning of the year — a pattern that Nomellini said abused the rights of Delta farmers.

“It’s not as bad as it was in (the drought of) 1976-77, yet they’re treating this thing as extremely critical and they’re imposing this black-and-blue process of emergency powers,” Nomellini said.

Nomellini said that if the Bay Delta Conservation Plan — which proposes pipelines to pump fresh water out of the Delta to secure a quantity of water for communities to the south — were approved on top of the new regulations, farming in the Delta would be threatened.

Herrick concurred. If the state takes fresh water out of the Delta, he said, more seawater will push upstream, making the water saltier: “If there’s no water in the rivers, at some point the ocean will come in and we’ll all be screwed.”

The irrigation districts will continue meeting with the state in pursuit of a compromise but are prepared to fight, Nomellini said, citing the Delta Protection Act of 1959.

“This is hard for us to enforce, but this is the promise that is in the law: They ‘shall not divert water from the Delta for use anywhere outside the Delta unless an adequate supply for the Delta is first provided,’” he said. “We will try and reach consensus using our agencies. Our plan is to fight these guys on the first attack.”

None of the farmers at the meeting approached by the Press were willing to speak about the regulations or their impact on the crops they grow.

• Contact Michael Ellis Langley at or 830-4231.

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July 21, 2014
All of the references in this article should be to the State Water Resources Control Board (SWRCB), not the Department of Water Resources (DWR). The SWRCB regulates the state's water rights system, not DWR.

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