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Thousands of water rights holders in the Russian River watershed could soon lose access to their water after state regulators approved emergency drought rules Tuesday.
The State Water Resources Control Board voted unanimously to reauthorize the Division of Water Rights to issue “curtailment orders” for up to 2,000 rights holders in order to preserve water in Lake Sonoma and Lake Mendocino and to protect drinking water supplies and fish populations.
“Climate change-induced drought conditions are not easing, making it critical that we continue taking actions to protect the state’s diminishing water supply,” Deputy Director of the Division of Water Rights Erik Ekdahl said in a news release Wednesday.
As the state’s drought drags on into its third year and after enduring the driest January through March period in history, residents statewide are beginning to face mandatory water restrictions and every California county is under an emergency drought proclamation.
The ongoing drought has already led to severe water restrictions from both of California’s main water storage and delivery systems.
“Climate change-induced drought conditions are not easing, making it critical that we continue taking actions to protect the state’s diminishing water supply.”Erik Ekdahl, deputy director of the Division of Water Rights
In February, urban and industrial water users on the federal Central Valley Project were told they would likely receive only 25 percent of their water allocations and farmers were told they would get nothing from that system.
The federal system is run by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and supplies water to more than 3 million acres of farmland and about 2.5 million residents.
In March, the state Department of Water Resources announced that it could deliver just 5 percent of water requested from the State Water Project, which serves 27 million residents and 750,000 acres of farmland.
If, as expected, state regulators order Russian River water rights holders to stop drawing water, it will be the second time in two years such orders have been issued.
In August 2021, the 861 water rights holders in the Upper Russian River watershed and 222 rights holders in the Lower Russian River were required to stop pumping water.
Currently, Lake Sonoma is at just 37 percent of capacity and Lake Mendocino is at 39 percent.
The new rules approved Tuesday would allow some rights holders in the Upper Russian River watershed to reduce water use to avoid curtailments.
“If we didn’t issue curtailments last year, Lake Mendocino might have gone completely dry,” Ekdahl said.