Special Drought Edition: California Environmental Law & Policy Update - June 2022

Allen Matkins
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As severe drought conditions continue across the western U.S., Allen Matkins will begin publishing a quarterly newsletter focused on recent legal, regulatory, and policy issues impacting water users and suppliers in California and the Colorado River Basin. This special edition newsletter will be published quarterly to supplement our standard, weekly California Environmental Law and Policy Update featuring a separate editorial team: David Osias (Partner, San Diego), Barry Epstein (Partner, San Francisco), Alex Doherty (Partner-elect, San Francisco), Eoin McCarron (Associate, Los Angeles), and Tara Paul (Associate, Los Angeles).

Focus

California orders thousands of farms and cities, including San Francisco, to stop pumping water during drought

Bullet San Francisco Chronicle - June 7

The California State Water Resources Control Board (SWRCB) has ordered thousands of farmers, irrigation districts, and municipal water agencies to stop making draws from rivers and creeks. The orders, effective June 8, require those with lesser water rights in the Sacramento and San Joaquin River watersheds, basically inland areas from the Oregon border to Fresno, to turn to alternative sources of water, if they have it. Some growers and small water providers without a backup supply may be forced to go without water entirely. State records show that a total of 4,252 rights will be curtailed, including those of 212 public water systems.

News

U.S. Bureau of Reclamation floats drastic measures to stanch California's water crisis

Bullet Desert Sun – June 14

U.S. Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Camille Touton told Congress on June 14 that shortages on the Colorado River system have taken an even grimmer turn, with 2 million to 4 million acre feet of reduction in water use needed by 2023 to keep Lake Mead functioning and capable of delivering drinking water, irrigation, and power to millions of people. Touton urged the Imperial Irrigation District, the Coachella Valley Water District, the Los Angeles Metropolitan Water District, and other districts in California, Arizona, and Nevada that rely on Lake Mead, to complete another major voluntary reduction agreement by mid-August. California, which holds the largest and oldest rights to Colorado River water, so far has been spared of the mandatory cuts that Nevada and Arizona are facing.


California adopts ban on irrigation in certain areas amid drought

Bullet The Center Square – May 25

The SWRCB on May 24 adopted emergency water conservation regulations, including a ban on the irrigation of grass on commercial, industrial, and institutional properties, excluding areas used for recreation or other community events. The ban took effect on June 10, and violators could face a $500 daily fine per violation. The SWRCB also moved to adopt regulations requiring all urban water suppliers to move to “Level 2” in their water conservation plans, which plan for a shortage of up to 20 percent. Level 2 actions typically include measures like limiting outdoor watering to only certain days or hours and increasing efforts to identify water waste.


State Water Board approves historic Russian River water sharing agreement

Bullet The Press Democrat – June 7

The SWRCB on June 7 approved a groundbreaking agreement that allows senior water rights holders in the upper Russian River watershed to share their supply with junior rights holders whose claims might otherwise be suspended due to drought. The agreement, negotiated over many months by agricultural, municipal, tribal, and other stakeholders in the region, is the first of its kind to try to bring balance to the allocation of scarce water supplies in a state governed by what one board member called an “inherently inequitable” water rights system.


California lawmakers propose purchasing senior water rights from farmers

Bullet ABC News – June 5

A group of California state senators is proposing to spend up to $1.5 billion to buy senior water rights from farmers, which allow them to take as much water as needed from the state's rivers and streams to grow their crops. Under the proposal, the state would use a portion of its nearly $100 billion budget surplus to buy the water rights — by either purchasing the land associated with the rights, acquiring just the right itself, or putting an easement on the land that requires the water to be used for fish and other fauna and flora. California’s extended drought has prompted intense scrutiny of the state’s complex water system and how it might be modified to ensure steady supplies during exceptionally dry periods — including a separate state proposal that would pay farmers to grow fewer crops to save water.


Sweeping water restrictions begin in Southern California as drought worsens

Bullet CNBC – June 1

Sweeping restrictions on outdoor water use adopted by the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California on April 27 went into effect on June 1 for more than 6 million residents in Los Angeles, Ventura, and San Bernardino counties. The conservation rules, among the strictest ever imposed in the state, prohibit households from watering their lawns more than once a week in many jurisdictions. The restrictions are intended to reduce water use by 35 percent.


San Diego argues for drought rules exemption; state disagrees

Bullet Los Angeles Times – June 4

The San Diego County Water Authority has repeatedly lobbied the state for an exemption to statewide water conservation regulations that went into effect on June 10. Officials argue that the region uses little, if any, water from the state’s imperiled Sacramento River Delta, with more than half of its water obtained from the Colorado River. California’s water officials have said San Diego needs to continue to cut back, especially since the Colorado River remains in the grip of a 22-year megadrought. Managers in the three lower basin states, California, Arizona, and Nevada, are now gearing up to negotiate a new compact governing how to share the dwindling Colorado River by 2026. Many agency officials across Southern California have expressed fears that the process could drag out past the deadline and potentially throw current arrangements into legal disarray.


Study: Earth's groundwater basins may sink for decades if levels don't rebound

Bullet CBS News – June 2

Over-pumping of San Joaquin Valley's groundwater basins has caused the region's surface to slowly collapse in a process known as subsidence. According to NASA data, the ground has dropped nearly 30 feet in large areas of the valley since the 1920s, damaging bridges and disrupting the flow of canals. In a paper published on June 2 in Water Resources Research, Stanford University researchers warn that subsidence will continue for decades or even centuries if underground water levels aren't allowed to rebound. The authors' conclusion contradicts assumptions that merely stopping the decline of water tables is sufficient to halt land subsidence above.


California drought could severely limit hydroelectric generation this summer

Bullet Power Magazine – June 2

The U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) suggests in a new report that California drought conditions could cut the state’s hydroelectric generation capacity nearly in half this summer, reducing the share of hydroelectric capacity from 15 percent to 8 percent. Drought conditions in much of the U.S. Southwest have prompted urgent action from power and water suppliers. Extraordinarily low water levels at Lake Powell on the Arizona-Utah border prompted the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation in early May for the first time to invoke its authority to change annual operations at Glen Canyon Dam and protect the 1.3 GW hydropower plant’s components while securing crucial water supplies.


Water usage increases in California as drought continues

Bullet Courthouse News Service – June 7

According to a new report released on June 7 by the SWRCB, analyzing data from April 2021 to April 2022, water usage in urban areas increased by 17.6% compared to last year. The report does not reflect usage following new statewide water conservation measures announced in May. Governor Gavin Newsom is now requesting that all water districts turn in their usage reports by the 3rd business day of the month for the previous month instead of on the 28th day.

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DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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