California Restricts Pumping for Pre-1914 Water Rights Holders for 1st Time in Nearly 40 Years

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Fields of carrots are watered in Kern County March 29, 2015, when the snowpack in the Sierra Nevada mountain range hit an unprecedented low. California’s drought, in its fourth year, is going from bad to worse, with water levels expected to be the lowest on record. (Credit: FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP/Getty Images)

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For the first time in nearly 40 years, California regulators are telling more than 100 irrigation districts and others with some of the oldest water rights in the state that they have to stop pumping supplies from drought-starved rivers and streams in the Central Valley.

The curtailment order, issued Friday by the State Water Resources Control Board, has been expected for weeks. The board earlier this spring halted diversions by some 9,000 junior rights holders. With snowmelt reduced to a trickle this year, there simply isn’t enough water flowing in rivers to meet the demand of all those with even older rights predating 1914.

The impacts of the curtailments, which affect water users with rights dating to 1903, will vary. Most large irrigation districts have water in storage that they can continue to use. Utilities can keep using flows for hydropower production as long as the water is returned to the rivers. Many growers and ranchers also have groundwater supplies unaffected by the order.

But the fact that the state is reaching back more than a century in the heirarchy of California water rights highlights the withering hold of a drought that has also led to the state’s first-ever mandatory cuts in urban use.

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