Sunday, January 16, 2022

Walters: There’s a big fight going on over California’s water rights

California doesn’t have enough water to meet all the demands, even in wet years, and when drought hits, there’s competition for it to be mild, intense.

State and federal officials who should ration the restricted supply are surrounded by pleas from advocates for farmers, municipal water systems and the environment.

However, water managers must contend with a bewildering array of water rights, some of which date back to the 19th century, as well as long-standing contractual obligations and laws, both statute and judicial decree, spawning salmon and Others are there to keep the flow of wildlife. .

Those conflicting factors came to the fore last week when the State Water Resources Control Board voted unanimously to reduce almost all agricultural water diversions from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta watershed, which ranges from about 500 near the Tehachapi Mountains near the Oregon border. It stretches for miles.

The order will have an impact on farmers who use most of the water allocated for human use, but not immediately. The crop irrigation season is almost over and water managers have delivered a substantial portion of agricultural water at the start of the year – too much in the eyes of environmental groups.

However, if drought and the board’s no-diversion policy continue into 2022, they will certainly ignite a high-stakes political and legal conflict over whether the state can essentially usurp historic water rights and determine whether how to operate local agricultural water systems.

Valerie Kincaid, a water law attorney who represents the San Joaquin Tributaries Authority, bluntly told the board, “We now have a draft regulation that exceeds that of the Water Board authority,” indicating that The legal battle over water rights is going on.

The state first began regulating water in 1914 and holders of pre-existing water rights, as well as landowners adjacent to waterways, have long been considered an almost absolute right to draw water without regulation.

However, in recent years, the legal status of those pre-1914 rights has been questioned. After drought gripped the state during his first term as governor more than 40 years ago, Jerry Brown appointed a commission to review water rights, stating, “Current legislation does not include California water rights. There are barriers to full beneficial use.”

That effort yielded nothing, but when another drought struck during Brown’s second governorship, his water board appointment led a small water district near Tracy to seek senior water rights by punishing it for ignoring a cut order. attempted to infringe.

“We are a test case,” Byron-Bethany district manager, Rick Gilmore, said at the time. “I think this has become a big issue. I think the water board wants to use this as a precedent so they can start to have more control over senior water right users.

The conflict subsided before it turned into a full-fledged legal battle, but other senior rights holders ruled that the state was issuing its own curtailment decrees without due process.

Environmental groups and some agricultural interests that lack water rights, such as the vast Westlands Water District, are vying for the fight for water rights.

Westlands backed last week’s board action, citing the distribution of water to senior rights holders as an “illegal diversion” necessary to maintain water quality. The Westlands thus became an odd ally of the Natural Resources Defense Council, which complains that the federal Central Valley Project gave farmers too much Lake Shasta water in the spring, leaving little to support salmon spawning runs.

As droughts become more frequent, California will be – or should be – forced to rethink its entire water system and the state of water rights will be a central and very destabilizing factor.

Dan Walters is a columnist for CalMatters.

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