By David Siders and Jim Miller
04/26/2015 12:17 AM

MEADOW VALLEY– High above a landscape parched by unremitting drought, Meadow Valley Creek courses through the northern Sierra Nevada and pools in a stand of alders behind a tiny, concrete dam.

Robert Forbes draws water from the reservoir through an overturned smokestack and into a ditch that has run west of Quincy for more than 100 years.

He adjusted a piece of plywood at its mouth to restrict the flow one recent morning. In dry years, Forbes said, “I start rationing people along the line.”

Forbes’ family’s access to this water derives from an 1870s claim in Plumas County; and his antiquated management of the ditch – breaking ice with a shovel in the winter, negotiating irrigation schedules among neighbors when the weather warms – has persisted for decades with little intervention.

With 12 customers, the utility Forbes manages is one of the smallest in the state.

But as California stretches into a fourth year of drought, regulators are expanding their reach and running into resistance from holders of some of California’s oldest and strongest water rights.

Earlier this year, the State Water Resources Control Board ordered more than 1,000 property owners to prove their water rights. This month, the board warned claim-holders to expect curtailments of their ability to divert water from rivers and streams.

The actions are significant because they include the state’s most senior water rights holders – those claimed before California established its permitting process in 1914.

“The rules are changing,” Forbes said. “They’re shaking us down.”

Throughout California, there are more than 14,000 statements of diversion and use that reflect riparian and pre-1914 water rights, according to the most recent information in the state’s public water rights database. The rights are concentrated in California’s northern reaches and in counties around the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

Several thousand entities – from corporations to government agencies – control the claims, sometimes dozens of them. The rights averaged at least 19.2 million acre-feet in reported annual water diversions from 2010 through 2013, according to a February water board analysis.

Altogether, the claims lay stake to a staggering amount of water. University of California researchers reported last year that California had allocated five times more surface water than is available even in a good precipitation year.

Many of California’s oldest rights date to the state’s settlement, when the federal government let settlers “reclaim” swampland by converting it into farmland. This arrangement often came with a right to water for irrigating crops. But record-keeping is imprecise. Owners self-report water use, which sometimes is based on readings from meters but also reflects rough estimates. Almost 4,000 of the claims in the February analysis showed zero diversions.

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