While not yet a formal policy, those who manage California’s vast water system are moving toward a historic reallocation of the state’s dwindling supplies that could have a major impact on its largest agricultural industry in the country.
For many years, farmers used about 80% of water diverted from rivers for human use, with the rest going to urban areas for drinking, lawn watering, pool maintenance, showering, cooking, and commercial or industrial use.
A prolonged drought has forced all users to make do with less. But the biggest loss has been the environment – free flows to preserve habitat for fish and other aquatic species – which generally account for about 50% of the total flow.
In recent years, federal judges have ordered cuts to agricultural water diversions to enforce the Endangered Species Act, and the state’s drought-emergency Water Resources Control Board has moved in the same direction. However, environmental groups want a permanent reduction in habitat growth.
Former Gov. Jerry Brown and his successor, Gavin Newsom, sought “voluntary agreements” that would have agricultural water agencies limit diversions to maintain river flows, but results have been tenuous at best.
Without such agreements, the water board could impose mandatory reductions, but farmers would see them as an attack on their historic water rights and would likely trigger massive legal battles.
A key principle in these conflicts is that water belongs to the public as a whole and must be “beneficially used,” as defined in a 1943 law that implemented a constitutional declaration adopted by voters in 1928. The law orders authorities to prevent “waste or unreasonable use or inappropriate use of water…”
Environmentalists believe that the Constitution thus authorizes the State Water Authority to limit agricultural diversions to protect habitat, but the 1943 act also declares: “In enacting this code, the Legislature does not thereby intend to make any change in the law relating to water.” right.”
This apparent legal dichotomy is at the heart of the situation.
Whether the state water board is actually preparing to settle the water rights, some of which date back to the 19th century, is the subject of much speculation in water circles.
Earlier this year, water board chairman Joaquin Esquivel told a gathering of water officials, “We know we have to change the system. Water rights can be a tool here to manage supplies not only during droughts, but also when water is available again. Our water rights system here can facilitate project decisions and help us make decisions, or they can be a hindrance.”
As the water rights issue permeates Northern California, a similar conflict is playing out in Southern California over how much water the state diverts from the critically endangered Colorado River.
California is legally entitled to 4.4 million acre-feet a year, with the vast majority going to the Imperial Irrigation District and other agricultural users, but Colorado’s flow has dropped dramatically.
The federal government is demanding that California and other states that draw on the river, primarily Nevada and Arizona, reduce diversion by 2 to 4 million acre-feet a year, and is threatening to order cuts under the “beneficial use” doctrine if they can’t. agree.
California has offered a reduction of 400,000 acres, only 9%, but this is not enough to satisfy the other states, and the result is very doubtful. Meanwhile, the feds are offering Colorado water users $400 for every acre-foot of water they don’t withdraw.
Farmers’ water rights are apparently not as sacrosanct as they once seemed, and as the drought continues, the stage is being set for a monumental showdown of some sort.
CalMatters is public interest journalism committed to explaining how the California State Capitol works and why it matters. More stories from Dan Walters can be found in the comments.