Faced with dire water shortages and a severe drought, California has moved to enact emergency restrictions that will prevent thousands of farmers and landowners from using water drawn from an enormous system of streams and rivers that services nearly two-thirds of the state.

Regulators on the water resources control board, which oversees the allocation of the state’s water, voted unanimously on Tuesday to stop diversions from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, a vast watershed sprawling from Fresno to the Oregon border. This unprecedented action will primarily affect those using water for agricultural irrigation purposes, the Los Angeles Times reported. The restrictions will force some farmers to rely on alternative supplies, such as groundwater wells. But the timing of the order, which will take effect in two weeks, could spare many growers from hardship as the greatest agricultural demand on the watershed tends to fall in late spring and summer, the newspaper said.

“This decision is not about prioritizing one group over the other, but about preserving the watershed for all,” said E Joaquin Esquivel, the board chair.

Drought has ravaged California, and the US west more broadly, leaving reservoirs dangerously low, putting pressure on the state’s agricultural industry, and threatening the power supply from hydroelectric plants. Most people in the state are now living under a drought emergency declaration. The state’s governor, Gavin Newsom, recently asked residents to cut water use by 15%.

Earlier this week, the state took similar action to protect fragile water supplies. Authorities on Monday ordered a stop to water diversions from the Russian River in northern California.

Regulators say that, without the latest order, a substantial portion of California’s drinking water supply would be endangered if the drought were to continue through next year. The order, which could affect as many as 5,700 water rights holders, includes exceptions for uses such as drinking, sanitation and generating electricity.

Those who fail to follow the order could be subject to fines of up to $1,000 a day as well as $2,500 per acre-foot of illegally diverted water, Erik Ekdahl, the deputy director of the board’s division of water rights, told CalMatters.

The delta, the state’s largest surface water source, receives most of its water from Sierra Nevada snow melts, but amid some of the driest years on record, dry soil absorbed much of the snow melt that typically flows into state rivers. Demand for water has not slowed and is far outpacing supply: demand is about 16 times the available supply for the San Joaquin River watershed, and about three times the available supply for the Sacramento River watershed, Lisa Hong, an engineer for the Water Resources Control Board, told the Associated Press.

California has reduced water rights only a handful of times in the past, but it will probably become more routine as the climate crisis worsens, Jay Lund, the co-director of the Center for Watershed Sciences at UC Davis, told the LA Times.

The move has “discouraged” and “dismayed” farmers, said Chris Scheuring, the senior counsel for the California Farm Bureau.

“In general, farmers understand drought and they understand lean rain years. That’s the business we’re in,” he said. “But they don’t understand the downward slide in water reliability we are facing in California, sort of on a systemic level.”



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