A recent settlement between Monterey County, Monterey County Water Resources Agency, and a coalition of Salinas Valley farmers brings an end to a protracted legal battle over reservoir operations during drought conditions.
In 2017, the Salinas Valley Water Coalition, representing Salinas Valley growers, filed two suits against MCWRA and the county. They alleged that MCWA violated established water rights when it restricted flows from Nacimiento and San Antonio reservoirs in 2014 and 2015, during the height of the drought.
The period between fall 2011 and fall 2015 was the driest four years in California since the state began keeping records in 1895. In June 2014, Lake San Antonio was at only 3-percent of capacity, while Lake Nacimiento was 20-percent full. Between June 2014 and May 2015, MCWRA reduced flows from the reservoirs to 25 cubic feet per second. The coalition sued in 2017, alleging the agency was mandated to maintain flows of at least 60 cfs to protect endangered steelhead trout.
The reduced flows could also make a difference for farmers.
Releases from the reservoir allow water to seep through the bed of the Salinas River, replenishing the aquifers below from which farmers pump groundwater for irrigation. The decrease in flows, Isakson says, made North Valley farmers fear that salty groundwater would intrude into the fresh aquifer, or that wells would go dry altogether. “When the drought happened, nobody was prepared for it, and it did unfortunately create significant impacts,” Isakson says.
But MCWRA General Manager Brent Buche says the severity of the drought left few other options. “We don’t really have a lot of flexibility,” he says. A proposed interlake tunnel between the San Antonio and Nacimiento dams would allow the agency to store more water from wet years to carry the county through droughts. But Buche says that even with increased capacity, another multi-year drought could still deplete the reservoirs.
If that happens, the settlement stipulates that a technical advisory committee with members from SVWC, MCWRA and experts selected by stakeholders will present recommendations to the agency’s board. Although committee members will be selected by May 15, 2020, the group will not convene unless reservoir storage is below 220,000 acre-feet on Dec. 1 of a given year. Since the combined storage of the dams is currently about 280,000 acre-feet, the committee will not be operational in 2020.
Buche is hopeful that greater transparency and stakeholder input will improve relations with farmers. But he notes that, in a system with limited water supply, meeting everyone’s needs is not always easy. The agency currently faces a lawsuit from the Nacimiento Regional Water Management Advisory Committee, a group of residents near Lake Nacimiento who want to keep the lake’s water levels high in the summer. “They [NRWMAC] is saying I'm letting out too much water, and Salinas Valley Water Coalition is saying I'm not letting out enough water,” Buche says. “So when you're being sued for either direction, there really is no perfect solution. And so we have to compromise.”