For the first time in more than 100 years, residents of the Anderson-Cottonwood Irrigation District (A.C.I.D.) didn’t receive any irrigation water this season. After the federal Bureau of Reclamation cut their usual water allocations by a stunning 82 percent, the A.C.I.D. board sold off the remaining water allocations to other districts for a net profit of $7.5 million, saying what they were given was too little to flow down the district’s 35 miles of canals to users.
During an August 11 A.C.I.D. board meeting, board President Brenda Haynes told residents of the district that the federal water cuts were a breach of the district’s water rights contract, which guarantees at least 75 percent of the district’s usual allocations from the Shasta Reservoir, even in dry years. But court documents and interviews with key officials tell a different story, indicating that A.C.I.D. voluntarily agreed to the water cuts along with other agencies in the Sacramento River Settlement Contractors (SRSC), as part of negotiations with two federal agencies, Reclamation, and the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
“At the end of the day, the settlement contractors openly agreed to it . . . it was unprecedented, they’ve never taken so little water,” said Howard Brown, West Coast Branch Chief for NOAA, which administers the Endangered Species Act (ESA) for winter-run salmon and was also involved in the negotiations, “Huge hats off to them.”
During an August 15 in-person interview with Shasta Scout, Haynes confirmed that A.C.I.D. did agree to cuts to the district’s long-standing senior water rights contract. But she pushed back on the idea that the board’s compliance was really voluntary. “Folks need to understand, A.C.I.D. did not make the decision,” she said. “Of course we agreed to the 18 percent as opposed to something less. What are we supposed to say, no we’re not going to take it? But not until we had gone from 75 percent and we saw it falling and falling and no rain. We had no choice.”
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Reclamation, NOAA, and SRSC negotiated the agreement in response to a confluence of interrelated factors that included a dramatic lack of rain, a historically low amount of water in Shasta Reservoir, and the dire state of endangered winter-run salmon. Together these factors set the stage for a crucial March legal decision that ordered Reclamation and other agencies to develop a new Interim Operations Plan (IOP) for the Shasta Reservoir that would account for updated science and the impacts of the drought, especially on salmon.
The ruling prompted a series of meetings among six federal and state agencies to plan cold-water releases from Shasta Reservoir. Following those, representatives of Reclamation, NOAA, and SRSC “collectively came up with the current plan” for managing cold-water releases from Shasta Reservoir, said Roger Cornwell, chair of SRSC. While the court’s ruling required A.C.I.D. and other settlement contractors to work towards developing a plan, it also stated that Reclamation did not have permission to breach A.C.I.D.’s long-standing senior water rights contract. That left Reclamation with the difficult task of determining how to protect salmon while maintaining obligations to contractors, a process the court said it was in “no position to micromanage.” Reclamation spokesperson Mary Lee Knecht declined to comment for this story.
Historically, water contractors like SRSC have held significant power in how the Shasta Dam is operated. In the ruling, the judge described their strong senior water rights as the “800-pound gorilla” looming over the agencies’ challenge to manage Shasta Reservoir releases to prevent a winter-run salmon extinction. But A.C.I.D.’s meager 18 percent water delivery this year stands in sharp contrast to the 75 percent allocation the San Joaquin River Exchange Water Contractors Authority received from the Central Valley Project this year, according to Reclamation data.
The difference in allocations seems to reinforce criticisms from Tribes and environmental justice groups that California’s current water rights system is a significant barrier to equitably and effectively responding to California’s historic drought. Tim Stroshane, a Restore the Delta policy analyst, said reforming the current water rights system could allow for those with senior water rights both north and south of the Delta to more equally share the burden of drought-related water cuts. This, he said, could help prevent crises like those faced by A.C.I.D. users.
A.C.I.D. has been around for more than 100 years. It became part of the SRSC in the 1960s after two decades of negotiations between water rights holders and Reclamation, to access water from the Central Valley Project.
While water from the Central Valley project is sent to cities, farms, individuals, and wildlife refuges throughout the state, SRSC typically receives about 22 percent of all water deliveries from the Shasta Reservoir, the largest of any user, according to a Congressional report. While A.C.I.D. is only one district among many in the contractor group, the district receives the fourth-largest annual water allocation amount among the contractors: 122,000 acre-feet.
Without water, some residents of A.C.I.D., which is located in Shasta and Tehama counties, have sold cattle, fallowed fields, and even had to purchase storage tanks and buy water for domestic use after wells have gone dry. But they’re not the only ones suffering, said SRSC’s Cornwell, “I get everyone’s emotional charge. This is the first time they’ve ever seen it,” Cornwell said, calling the decision to “fallow 600 square miles of the valley” a “community killer.”
Unfortunately, the devastating federal water cuts were difficult to avoid, Cornwell said. After two years of extensive salmon egg die-offs, the IOP ordered by the court prioritized water for salmon over deliveries to the contractors. The judge also gave NOAA Fisheries more power in the planning process to prevent another salmon egg die-off.
Chinook salmon have critical ecosystem importance as a keystone species, bringing nutrients between freshwater and saltwater ecosystems. They’re also vital to Indigenous cultures and support a $900 million commercial salmon industry in California. And while a future wet year, and financial subsidies, could restore agriculture, the extinction of this keystone species would be permanent.
“If there are two years in a row of poor egg-to-fry (salmon baby) survival, it’s an all-hands-on-deck scenario (under the ESA),” Brown said, noting salmon have a three-year life cycle. “It’s required in that scenario that the six agencies do everything in their power to avoid a third year of low survival.”
Cornwell said SRSC actually negotiated a better deal than government agencies originally proposed, and the 18 percent they received, he said, allowed most agencies in SRSC to distribute some water to users. Unfortunately, he said, A.C.I.D. was one of five districts within the SRSC that were unable to deliver any of the 18 percent water allocation to irrigators, leaving them with functionally zero allocations due to the inadequacies of the district’s water system design.
Reclamation was aware of how the cuts would affect A.C.I.D., Cornwell said, noting that former A.C.I.D. general manager John Currey advocated within the inter-agency group for measures to help the district avoid a dire situation. Cornwell said Currey suggested workarounds like a single, early release of all the district’s water to push more of it down the canal to users. But this would have required farms in other districts to have their water shut off, Cornwell said, explaining that “there was no equitable way to address (the system design issues).”
At contentious board meetings over the summer, water users have criticized A.C.I.D. board members for not fighting hard enough to preserve the district’s senior water rights and asked why the board didn’t push back against federal cuts with legal action.
During an August 15 interview Haynes indicated that there was safety in staying with the larger group of water contractors. “How would it benefit A.C.I.D. to step away from the herd all by ourselves,” she said. “We are better off with the consortium, with the value of the help of all of these water lawyers, all together, on the same team. That’s where the power is.”
During the August 11 board meeting Haynes said that the decision to comply with the water cuts and not pursue legal action to push back against them was a strategic one, advised by the board’s legal counsel, and intended to ensure financial payouts.
“The key element to all this is the state and the federal government have a carrot. You want this, you better not do that,” A.C.I.D. board member Ray Eliante said during that same meeting. Haynes and Eliante said at that time that the district would receive financial compensation from the government as repayment for the damages caused by the water cuts. Referring to these funds as “reparations,” Eliante said $75 million was currently allocated for all settlement contractors combined and that amount was likely to rise as community damages from the lack of water continued to be assessed.
Shasta Scout was unable to confirm Haynes and Eliante’s specific claims about compensation. Brown, the NOAA official, said he couldn’t comment on the SRSC’s compensation. Cornwell said the district will receive an unknown amount of money, but referred to those funds not as “reparation” for water cuts but as federal drought-relief funds.
As for the salmon, Brown said, as of mid-September, about 75 to 80 percent of the endangered winter-run salmon eggs have survived, in part because SRSC accepted a reduced water delivery.
This article is part of a Shasta Scout series about the causes, effects and solutions to water shortages within the Anderson Cottonwood Irrigation District (A.C.I.D.). You can see the rest of the series here. If you have a personal experience to share or questions you’d like answered, contact us at [email protected]. Do you have a correction to this story? Submit it here.
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