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Drought - FAQ

State Water Board Drought Year Water Actions

DROUGHT AND WATER RIGHTS FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS

DROUGHT - GENERAL

Q:  What is the State Water Resources Control Board (State Water Board) doing right now in regard to the drought?

Answers:  

Water Right Permit Changes
In 2014 and 2015, State Water Board’s Executive Director issued Temporary Orders approving the requests of the Department of Water Resources (DWR) and United States Bureau of Reclamation (Reclamation) to conserve water in upstream storage for use later in the season to protect and improve water quality, maintain critical water supplies, and provide minimum flows for fisheries. The Orders are being amended as conditions warrant.

In addition, the Executive Director has been acting on many other urgent requests to temporarily change permit conditions and the Deputy Director for Water Rights has been granting flexibility within existing permit requirements.

Water Transfers
The State Water Board is expediting water transfers at the direction of the Governor’s Proclamation of a State of Emergency. Transfers are voluntary agreements whereby one water agency agrees to transfer available water it has to another agency.

Diversion Curtailments
The State Water Board also issued notices to all surface water rights holders that they may have their right to withdraw water suspended when there isn’t enough water in the system. This is implemented first with junior water rights holders, then to more senior water rights users, and then to the most senior. Information on the timing of actual curtailment notices is being posted.

Informational Workshops
The State Water Board conducted several public workshops to discuss how to best protect the public interest with minimal water supplies. The workshops encouraged public discussion of the temporary measures that the Executive Director has taken under his delegated authority. The State Water Board also listened to public testimony on a range of other options to respond to the drought.

Funding
The Board is working with other State and federal agencies to repurpose funding for near-term projects that will increase local supplies, including water recycling projects and conservation activities. The Board has also approved extended-term financing and a reduction in the interest rate tied to loans to assist communities with these projects.

Water Quality Permitting
The State and Regional Boards are expediting permitting to safely use recycled water. Reusing treated wastewater for irrigation augments existing water supplies and preserves precious freshwater supplies.

Q: Are there water quality concerns in a drought? What are they?

A: The ultimate water quality problem is not having enough clean water for basic public needs. One of the big concerns is that water in the Delta will become too salty to drink. Salinity makes water unsuitable for drinking and also for agricultural use. Salinity intrusion would be a big problem for those who live in and draw water from the Delta, as well as those who receive water exported from the Delta.

Q:  What would happen if saltwater intruded too far into the delta?

A.  The Delta is home to hundreds of aquatic and terrestrial species - some unique to the area - as well as more than 500,000 people, a thriving agricultural economy, and a distinctive recreational resource.  Depending on the extent of the intrusion, fresh water supplies could be cut off for millions of people who rely on the delta for all or part of their drinking water as well as irrigation water for millions of acres of farmland.  The Delta provides water for 25 million Californians and supplies an agricultural industry that, in turn, feeds millions.  Over two million residents in the Bay Area receive water from the Delta. Once the salt intrudes that far into the Delta, moreover, it would take an enormous amount of fresh water to flush the salt out again.


WATER RIGHTS - GENERAL

Q: What are water rights?  How do they work?

A: A water right gives the holder legal permission to use water for beneficial purposes, such as for agriculture, municipal water supply, recreation and the environment. Water right holders do not own the water, but they have the right to beneficially use reasonable amounts of it, when water is available under their priority of right. Surface water rights are regulated by the State Water Board, and have a priority order, based on seniority and the type of right. Different rules apply to surface and groundwater.

The water right priority system is what determines who gets to use water in times of shortage. Junior water right holders will be told to cease their diversions first in times of shortage so that water is available to meet senior water right holders’ needs. In general, the most senior are riparian water right holders. They are adjacent to the water body and are using water on the land that abuts the water body. Next are the appropriators. Their rights are based on the concept of first in time, first in right. The ones with more recent rights (junior water right holders) are curtailed first.


URGENT CHANGES TO WATER RIGHTS

Q: What is a temporary urgency change petition and order?

A: Temporary urgency change petitions are formal requests to the State Water Board for conditional, temporary changes to the terms and conditions of a water right. Temporary urgency change orders issued by the State Water Board allow water right holders to temporarily deviate from the terms of their existing water right in order to provide relief from drought conditions.

Temporary urgency change orders can last up to 180 days and are renewable. Temporary change orders are also subject at all times to modification or revocation at the discretion of the State Water Board or Executive Director.


ORDERS APPROVING THE TEMPORARY URGENCY CHANGE PETITIONS FOR THE STATE AND FEDERAL WATER PROJECTS

Q: What do the State Water Board’s Executive Director’s temporary urgency change orders for the State and Federal Water Projects do?

A:On January 31, 2014, the Executive Director issued an Order  that conditionally approved a Temporary Urgency Change Petition  (TUCP) that was filed jointly by the Department of Water Resources (DWR) and United States Bureau of Reclamation (Reclamation) to temporarily modify requirements in their water right permits and license for the State Water Project (SWP) and Central Valley Project (CVP). The requirements are included in State Water Board Revised Decision 1641 (D-1641 ) to meet water quality objectives in the Water Quality Control Plan (Plan) for the San Francisco Bay/Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta Estuary (Bay-Delta). The approval temporarily modified Delta flow and water quality requirements to address critically dry conditions associated with California’s ongoing drought.  As the result of changed circumstances and subsequent requests from DWR and Reclamation, and in response to objections to the TUCP Order, the Executive Director modified the TUCP Order on February 7, 2014, February 28, 2014, March 18, 2014, April 9, 2014, April 11, 2014, April 18, 2014, May 2, 2014, and October 7, 2014 to extend and change the conditions of the TUCP Order. In the May 2, 2014 TUCP Order, the Executive Director renewed the TUCP Order, which subsequently expired on January 27, 2015.

On September 24, 2014, the State Water Board adopted Order WR 2014-0029, which addressed objections to and denied petitions for reconsideration of the Executive Director’s January 31, 2014 TUCP Order and subsequent modifications thereto. While Order WR 2014-0029 denied the petitions for reconsideration, the Order did make some modifications to the TUCP Order in response to issues raised by some of the petitioners and other commenters in order to improve planning and coordination at that time and in the future if dry conditions were to continue. Specifically, the Order required the preparation of a Water Year 2015 Drought Contingency Plan in the event of continued drought conditions. The Drought Contingency Plan for the beginning of the water year was submitted to the State Water Board on October 15, 2014 and the plan for the remainder of the water year was submitted January 15, 2015.

On January 23, 2015, in response to continued drought conditions, the DWR and Reclamation jointly filed a TUCP to temporarily modify requirements in their water right permits and license for the SWP and CVP for the next 180 days, with specific requests for February and March of 2015. On February 3, 2015, the Executive Director issued an Order approving in part and denying in part the TUCP. The February 3 Order made modifications to D-1641 requirements during February and March of 2015, granting flexibility in the operation of the Delta Cross Channel Gates to combat salinity intrusion, reducing in Delta outflow and San Joaquin River flow requirements to preserve water in storage for use later in the year, and allowing for a base level of exports to meet water supply needs while protecting fish and wildlife uses. The Order also includes other conditions intended to ensure that the changes can be made (1) without injury to other legal users of water; (2) without unreasonable effects on fish, wildlife, or other instream beneficial uses; and (3) in the public interest.

Subsequent to the issuance of the February 3, 2015 Order, the State Water Board received written comments, objections, and petitions for reconsideration. The State Water Board also held a public workshop on February 18, 2015 to receive oral comments on the January 23 TUCP, the February 3 Order, and the Drought Contingency Plan.

On March 5, 2015, following the workshop, the Executive Director issued a Revised Order  regarding the TUCP that provides the CVP and SWP further flexibility to store and move water, especially in response to health and safety needs. The revisions:

  • Clarify that water saved in reservoirs as a result of the temporary urgency change orders will be used consistent with the Drought Contingency Plan and Temperature Management Plans for Delta operations, and are not subject to Executive Director discretion;
  • Clarify that export limitations do not apply to transfers within and between the state and federal water projects; and
  • Allow increased exports to meet minimum public health and safety needs as defined in the January 15, 2015 Drought Contingency Plan if documented.

The March 5, 2015 Order makes further revisions to operations that benefit water supply while still maintaining minimal fish and wildlife protections.

The TUCP orders approved by the Executive Director seek to find a balance between competing water needs in the face of historic dry conditions. Unfortunately, the drought has left California with no good options, only hard choices.

To receive future updates regarding the TUCP for the SWP and CVP and other drought related topics, subscribe to our Drought Updates email subscription list (appears in the "Water Rights Topics" section).

Q: What is the process for amending an order?

A: A temporary urgency change order is an action taken by the Executive Director under his delegated authority. The Executive Director may amend the order at any time, or the State Water Board may hold a hearing on the order to consider possible changes. Interested parties can file objections, which can trigger a change, or an amendment can be based on new, updated information. Temporary urgency change orders may be reconsidered by the State Water Board, either on its own motion or based upon a petition by an interested party.

The State's response to the unprecedented drought is a dynamic process, and the State Water Board is continually working to hear from stakeholders and gather feedback about what actions best serve the public interest. The Board held workshops  in February, May, and September 2014, and in February 2015 for this purpose.

As conditions evolve, the Executive Director and State Water Board staff will work with partner agencies and stakeholders to reevaluate its actions and consider other approaches, based on updated information. As a result, additional changes to the order are anticipated.

Q: Has the State Water Board processed additional temporary urgency change petitions?

A: Yes. Not surprisingly, the unprecedented nature of this drought has raised water balancing and urgency management decisions in watersheds throughout the state. Urgency change petitions are a part of state water law and are designed to address circumstances such as the current drought emergency.

The Executive Director has recently approved a number of temporary urgency change petitions and many more are pending. A list of the State Water Board’s recent temporary urgency change orders can be found here:

http://www.waterboards.ca.gov/waterrights/water_issues/programs/applications/transfers_tu_orders/index.shtml


CURTAILMENTS

Q: Are there specific triggers that would lead to curtailment?

A: When the amount of water available in a surface water source is not sufficient to support the needs of existing water right holders and in-stream uses, the State Water Board may issue notices of curtailment to water rights holders based on California’s water rights priority system. The Board is assessing the amount of water needed by water rights holders in critical watersheds along with the available and projected supplies to determine when insufficient water is available to meet more senior water right holders’ needs.

Q: How is that determined?

A: Board staff analyzes DWR data, water right information on past use and what water right holders are doing now, DWR and U.S. Geological Survey gauging system data, and current watershed conditions. Staff evaluates and considers current and forecasted conditions, water demand, and public trust needs. The analysis is watershed specific and every watershed is different. Staff actively works with DWR and other agencies and uses the most current information available to make its determination.

Q: Where can I obtain information on notices of curtailment?

A: Information on notices of curtailment and other drought related actions are posted on the Water Board website.

Q: Have water rights been curtailed in the past?

A: Yes. In 1976-77 the State Water Board curtailed water rights in many watersheds throughout the state. It also curtailed water rights in 1987-88. Curtailments have been more frequent in specific watersheds, including the Bay-Delta watershed.

Q: What areas have received curtailment notices?

A: The State Water Board issued curtailment notices for the Scott River, Eel River, Russian River above the Dry Creek confluence, Sacramento River Basin and the San Joaquin River Basin in May and June of 2014. For more information, please visit our curtailment page.

Q: What is the purpose of the statewide informational letters?

A: The letters are to advise water right holders to plan ahead. Water right holders should be aware of conditions in their watershed and anticipate that as conditions get drier later in the season, and absent a much greater amount of rainfall than anticipated, their ability to divert water may be limited or stopped entirely. The letters encourage conservation and the identification of alternative water supplies, if available. Just because you have a water right that entitles you to divert water in ordinary years does not mean that water will be available under your priority of right in this extraordinarily dry year.

Q: Are there penalties involved if water rights holders are told to curtail, and they don’t comply?

A: Yes, it would be considered an unauthorized diversion and a trespass against the state. Violations could be subject to an Administrative Civil Liability (ACL) under the Water Code, or referred to the Attorney General. Administrative cease and desist orders and court injunctions may also be issued to require that diversions stop. An ACL for an unauthorized diversion may impose liability up to $1000 a day plus $2500 per acre foot illegally diverted for violations during the current drought. If the matter is referred to the Attorney General for enforcement, penalties may be imposed by the court, which could be substantially higher than ACL penalties in some circumstances.


Contact Information

  • Drought Year Hotline (916) 341-5300
  • Curtailment Hotline    (916) 341-5342

 

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