Environment & Science

California farms ordered to stop pumping water from rivers

Dry, cracked earth is visible on a cantaloupe farm near Firebaugh, Calif., last August. Record-low snowpack levels in the Sierra Nevada mean most Central California farmers will face another year without water from the federal Central Valley Project.
Dry, cracked earth is visible on a cantaloupe farm near Firebaugh, Calif., last August. Record-low snowpack levels in the Sierra Nevada mean most Central California farmers will face another year without water from the federal Central Valley Project.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

For a second consecutive week, thousands of California farms have been ordered to stop pumping river water to irrigate their crops, officials said Friday.

The order applies to more than 2,700 water-rights holders — mostly farms — along the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and the Sacramento River in Northern California, said Tim Moran, a spokesman for the State Water Resources Control Board. Under California's a century-old system, the junior water-rights holders receiving the order must stop pumping from rivers so those with higher priority, or senior rights, can continue to irrigate.

California is in the fourth year of historic drought, and this is the second consecutive year that junior water-rights holders have received such orders. Last year, more than 5,000 orders were issued to farms and other water users, officials said.

Gov. Jerry Brown has been criticized for leaving farmers out of tightening regulations that force communities throughout the state to cut back on their water use, Moran said.

"This is really where agriculture is asked to sacrifice," Moran said. "This is where they suffer in the drought."

Friday's order includes farms and water users in 27,000 square miles. Last week, more than another 1,500 farmers along other river systems were ordered to stop pumping.

Farmers receiving the order can still buy water, use what they've stored in reservoirs and pump water from the ground, which officials said comes at the risk of depleting wells in some areas. Those who violate the order may be fined up to $1,000 a day or $2,500 for each acre-foot. Violators even face prosecution in court, officials said.