The National Water Resources Control Board on Tuesday approved a groundbreaking deal that allows “senior” water rights holders in Russia’s upper river basin to share their supply with junior rights holders whose claims might otherwise be suspended due to drought.
The collaborative, community-driven approach negotiated over many months by agricultural, municipal, tribal and other actors in the region is the first of its kind to attempt to balance the allocation of scarce water resources in a state. governed by what one board member described as an “intrinsically inequitable” water rights system.
Instead of relying on the century-old “first-come, first-come” system whereby young people’s water rights can be restricted entirely while seniors’ rights are left completely unrestricted, the voluntary framework approved on Tuesday allows neighbors to support each other through difficult times, supporters say.
Any senior water rights holder who participates will agree to give up some of their water so that junior water rights holders can at least have a minimum amount to support their agricultural interests or other needs.
The five-member board, which unanimously approved it, praised it for its innovation and focus on equity, as well as for its practicality in enabling more people to weather the drought with hit.
The water rights system “is what it is, and it’s kind of a blunt tool,” said board chairman E. Joaquin Esquivel. “But here, again, water rights holders in communities can organize and say that it is possible to share better with each other.”
The decision comes as the state council imposes what Deputy Director of the Water Rights Division, Erik Ekdahl, called “significant and very deep cuts” to 4,252 water rights holders in the San Joaquin/Sacramento River Delta watershed. The reduction orders come into effect tomorrow.
About 1,800 Upper and Lower Russian River water rights were cut last year as Lake Mendocino receded to its lowest level on record. Ekdahl said supply and demand assessments for this year have been conducted monthly and will be done at the end of this week, with reductions possible as early as June 16.
If the water-sharing deal works, some who might be restricted can still get water. But success still depends on enough people and institutions signing up for the program, including enough senior water rights holders to provide enough water to junior rights holders.
Registration is open until June 20. Calculations made in the coming days will determine whether the program is viable for this year. This means that the reductions could come into effect a few days before this decision is made.
It may be possible to move forward with as few as 10 participants, depending on the mix, said Sam Boland-Brien, supervising engineer at the National Water Board. But there are hundreds of water rights holders in the upper river and “obvious” scale advantages, “so we would like to see 100% enrollment,” he said. .
There is no way of knowing if there will be enough water in the watershed for even the oldest water rights holders to share.
Storage in Lake Mendocino is currently at about 56% of the target water supply curve for this time of year, and Sonoma Water, which handles summer discharge, expects to have just enough water available to maintain minimum river flows necessary to support federally protected salmon and rainbow trout.
While diversions of water from the Eel River to the East Branch Russian River and Lake Mendocino via the Potter Valley Power Plant could still provide enough to buffer downstream users, proponents of the voluntary agreement have been furious to discover three weeks ago that Pacific Gas & Electric had asked federal regulators for permission to reduce those flows to a fraction of what they normally would be.
The company did so, members of the water-sharing steering committee said, although it pledged and was asked by regulators to share this information with a working group of project stakeholders. Potter Valley, many of which are involved in water sharing. effort too.
“It’s been a year of hard work,” said Phillip A. Williams, special councilor on water for the town of Ukiah, still clearly angry. “We’re 99% of the way, then PG&E has a gap.”
If federal regulators approve the lower end of PG&E’s proposed range, the program may not be viable, Boland-Briend said.
Steering committee members said they thought it was worth pursuing.
Some also spoke of the experience working on the deal once water board staff began discussions about a local solution to the threat of cuts in 2020, in the first year of what is now a 3 year drought.
Elizabeth Salomone, general manager of the Russian River Flood Control and Water Conservation Improvement District in Mendocino County, recalled how early conversations with disparate parties “turned into partnerships ” and became “a team”.
Williams, special water counsel for the town of Ukiah, told the council he had recently reflected on the long-running use of the phrase “water wars” to capture tension in the West over this vital resource and the strain on who has it and who needs it. this.
It is, he said, “an extraordinarily unfortunate term and a misnomer”, conveying a zero-sum game.
“My experience tells me that last year has nothing to do with a war…”The water sharing agreement is a testament to the fallacy that the water wars paradigm offers us.”
For more information, visit waterboards.ca.gov/drought/russian_river/voluntary_program.html.
You can contact editor Mary Callahan (her) at 707-521-5249 or [email protected] On Twitter @MaryCallahanB.