Wednesday, April 8, 2015

California Drought -- Bad Grandfather

"Whiskey's for drinking. Water's for fightin' over."
            Someone who probably wasn't Mark Twain

I remember my surprise the first time I saw rice growing in the Central Valley. It didn't seem like a very profitable crop to grow in the desert. It wasn't until later that I learned about certain externalities that came into play.

SAN FRANCISCO -- California's drought-ravaged reservoirs are running so low that state water deliveries to metropolitan areas have all but stopped, and cutbacks are forcing growers to fallow fields. But 19th century laws allow almost 4,000 companies, farms and others to use an unmonitored amount of water for free -- and, in some cases, sell what they don't need.

With grandfathered legal rights, this group, dominated by big corporations and agricultural concerns, reports using trillions of gallons of water each year, according to a review by The Associated Press. Together, they have more than half of all claims on waterways in California.

However, the state doesn't know if any are overdrawing or wasting water. The AP found the state's system is based on self-reported, incomplete records riddled with errors and years out of date.

"We really don't know how much water they've actually diverted," said Bob Rinker, a manager in the State Water Resources Control Board's water rights division.

With a burgeoning population and projections of heightened climate-related impacts on snowpack and other water supplies, the antiquated system blunts California's ability to move water where it's most needed.

When gold miners flocked to the West in the 1800s, the state drafted laws that rewarded those who first staked claims on the region's abundant rivers and streams. Today, California still relies on that honor system.

The system's inequities are particularly evident in the arid Central Valley.

Near Yuba City, second-generation rice farmer Al Montna has been forced to idle 1,800 acres because of scarce water. About 35 miles north, however, fourth-generation Butte County rice farmer Josh Sheppard had more than enough water, thanks to superior rights to Feather River water dating to the late 1800s.

"No one thinks of it when there's ample water and plenty to go around, but in these times of tightness it is a very contentious resource that gets fought over," Sheppard said, standing next to his flooded fields.
I hope to get back to this soon. In the meantime, here's some data from the AP and a related article from the Washington Post.

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