The State Water Resources Control Board on Friday issued a draft regulatory proposal that would ramp up enforcement for illegal water diversions to preserve drinking water and protect the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta ecosystem. The order will impact more than 5,000 water users who depend on deliveries through the Delta.

The board has posted the draft order online for public review and plans to vote on the measure during its August 3 meeting. The regulation would take effect mid-month. The board has scheduled a July 27 workshop to go over the proposal and take public comment.

In a press call Friday, officials from the board said they have been readying the emergency order since March in the event that voluntary efforts to cut back on water use would be insufficient. The drought conditions rapidly escalated in June, following a decline of Sierra snowpack from about 70% of normal to nearly nothing in just six weeks. 

If approved, the order will last one year, allowing the board to take further actions in 2022 if the state experiences a third dry winter—a situation Karla Nemeth, the director of the California Department of Water Resources, said is very likely. Researchers were alarmed when low soil moisture levels and increased evapotranspiration in the environment led in part to the disappearance of more than 600,000 acre-feet of water this spring that had been expected to arrive in Northern California reservoirs from the snow melt. 

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The state has steadily ramped up its drought response efforts, starting with an emergency drought declaration from Gov. Gavin Newsom for Mendocino and Sonoma Counties in April. Two subsequent orders eventually brought 50 of the state’s 58 counties under an emergency declaration. This enabled the state water board to pass a controversial regulation to preserve drinking water in the Russian River watershed into next year, using a legal tool that labeled agricultural use as waste and unreasonable use. This week board staff heard from a number of concerned growers along the Shasta and Scott Rivers as it prepared an emergency order targeting that watershed in far Northern California, which feeds into the Delta and supplies much of the Central Valley.

Eileen Sobeck, the executive director for the state water board, said water contractors along the San Joaquin River have proposed a voluntary approach to Delta cutbacks and board staff plan to work with the stakeholders to identify any potential actions on their behalf that could supplant regulatory enforcement.

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