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FRESNO – “I think everyone in this room has a story to tell about how this drought is personally affecting us.”

That statement was only one of several attention-grabbing comments made at a drought forum Tuesday inside the Big Fresno Fairgrounds’ Industry Commerce Building.

Seated at the front of the room: A lineup of state officials and directors of the California Department of Food and Agriculture. In the audience: A collection of people with a professional link to agriculture, either as farmers or as members of organizations somehow tied to California’s farm sector.

Plenty of attention has been paid to agriculture in this drought. Few of the state’s mostly urban residents have failed to notice that agriculture uses a much bigger chunk of the state’s water supply than cities do.

Noting that some sharp criticism is being directed at the agricultural sector, CDFA Board President Craig McNamara wrote this on Monday on CDFA’s “Planting Seeds” blog:

“Those holding that point of view may believe that farmers and ranchers consume more than their fair share of water,” McNamara said. “While it’s easy to cast blame, let’s not forget that irrigation wells have gone dry, lifelong investments are dying in the fields and serious financial burdens are hanging overhead.”

Kings River lemon grower Keith Freitas was the first to step up to the podium and comment. Freitas quickly cut to the chase, asking if state officials intend to go after Kings River water.

That’s a live electric wire in Kings County, where jobs, acreage and livelihoods depend on the river.

Last year, state officials issued thousands of “curtailment notices” ordering junior water rights holders on the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers to stop diverting water.

Those junior rights were all established after 1914, when the state started to comprehensively regulate water rights.

According to Watermaster Steve Haugen at the Kings River Water Association, Kings River water rights are considered “senior” because they were established before 1914.

Senior rights take precedence during droughts and are considered by many to be legally untouchable.

Still, regulators are hinting that they may take the unprecedented step of ordering cutbacks to senior water rights holders on the Sacramento and the San Joaquin.

The main reason they’re bypassing the Kings is that it doesn’t drain into the Delta. If left to its natural devices, the Kings would fill up the old Tulare Lake bed near Corcoran.

The San Joaquin River and Sacramento River, however, drain into San Francisco Bay.

Officials say they have to maintain freshwater flows into the bay for two reasons.

One is to prevent tidal saltwater from backing up to the giant pumps upstream that suck out water for urban and agricultural use south of the Sacramento-San Joaquin River delta. If the saltwater got slurped up, it would foul the water supply for millions of people and could harm crops.

The other big motivation? To provide flows for endangered fish species, including delta smelt and chinook salmon.

All of which doesn’t, however, keep farmers on the Kings from getting nervous.

When Freitas asked officials point-blank if they had any authority over the river, Office of Emergency Services Director Mark Ghilarducci responded by saying that the Kings falls under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.

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Ted Miller, who lives a few miles from the Kings County line near Caruthers, talked about how fast the water is dropping in his new, 400-feet-deep residential well, which he said is close to several agricultural wells that go deeper.

“I’m not a farmer, [but] I live in farm country,” Miller said.

Miller said his well dropped 10 feet from January 2014 to May 2015.

“That is a shocking statistic,” he said. “It’s dropping eight feet a year.”

Miller said that two feet a year was the average annual drop from 1940 to 2010. After that, he said the annual decline started to accelerate.

Officials emphasized the need for action to lessen the drought’s harmful impacts. They reiterated Gov. Jerry Brown’s April executive order requiring an across-the-board 25 percent reduction in the state’s water use by February 2016.

That includes cutbacks of 28 percent for Hanford, 32 percent for Lemoore and 36 percent for Corcoran.

Ghilarducci hinted that further cuts may be in the works if it doesn’t look like people are saving enough to meet the targets.

“We’re evaluating each and every day,” he said. “We’re hoping the measures we put in place, people will heed … and the culture will change.”

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The reporter can be reached at snidever@hanfordsentinel.com or 583-2432. Follow him on Twitter @snidever.

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