Uncomplicating the Drought: Water Rights
California is a complicated place. Few things exemplify this better than the state’s system of water rights. Yet it is hard to make sense of the present severe drought without knowing a little about water rights.
The San Francisco Chronicle does a commendable job unraveling the confusion of California water rights in a comprehensive article published on Sunday. Appropriately, the article is built around the city of San Francisco’s historic water grab on the distant Tuolumne River, which led to the construction of Hetch Hetchy Reservoir in Yosemite National Park. It’s worth reading to begin developing a basic understanding of California water rights, and hence the water fights now under way as a result of the drought.
In short, if you laid claim to the water first, not only are you entitled to more of it under California law, but you don’t even have to tell state officials how much you use. Such claims – known as “senior” water rights – make managing water shortages very difficult.
The article points out that just 10 California water-rights holders — including the city of San Francisco — hold claim to 50 percent of the senior water rights on the Sacramento and San Joaquin river basins, the largest watersheds in the state.
“We have a system designed to allocate water in a newly settled land,” said Leon Szeptycki, executive director of Stanford University’s Water in the West program. “It’s not the solution to our problem now.”
‘Sweetheart Deal’ for One of California’s Biggest Water Users
Westlands Water District, the largest agricultural irrigation district in California (and the nation), has reached an agreement with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation to settle a long-running dispute about toxic farm runoff.
What does this have to do with drought? Read on.
In a nutshell, Reclamation is obligated under federal law to manage farm drainage in the Westlands district, which encompasses 600,000 acres on the arid west side of the San Joaquin Valley. Soil conditions in the region mean that runoff is tainted with toxic levels of selenium, which can deform wildlife, as it did at Kesterson Wildlife Refuge in the 1970s. Reclamation never solved the drainage problem, and it wants out of that obligation.
Westlands, meanwhile, owes the federal government hundreds of millions of dollars for the costs Reclamation incurred on the Central Valley Project (CVP). The project diverts water from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta to irrigate Westlands farms and other areas of the San Joaquin Valley. Because of the way federal water contracts work, Westlands and the other CVP contractors are not expected to meet the federal deadline to repay taxpayers for those costs.
So the two entities have reached a deal to make each other happy. Westlands has agreed to let Reclamation off the hook for the drainage obligation. In return, Westlands will not have to repay its federal debts. In addition, Westlands has apparently agreed to stop irrigating 100,000 acres.
The drought nexus:
- The deal means 100,000 acres of arid farmland will no longer suck water from the Delta, and will no longer contribute to the problem of toxic runoff.
- It also means Westlands may have an easier time taking on new debt to fund a new system of diversion tunnels in the Delta proposed by Gov. Jerry Brown, now cryptically renamed California Water Fix.
Westlands, along with the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, are the two big guns that would carry the weight of the tunnels’ construction cost. But there has been speculation the project has become too expensive — particularly for water users like Westlands, which may not have the right economics to please the bond market.
The tunnels would allegedly deliver the same quantity of water more consistently, although potentially creating a new suite of environmental problems for the troubled Delta.
Democratic lawmakers in Congress representing Northern California and the Delta were not briefed on the agreement until it was finalized. And they still haven’t even received copies of it.
“It doesn’t look good,” Rep. Jerry McNerney, D-Stockton, told McClatchy Newspapers. “Westlands is getting another sweetheart deal.”
Special Legislative Session Sought on California Drought
A bipartisan group of 47 California legislators is asking Gov. Jerry Brown to schedule a special legislative session to address the drought, according to the Associated Press.
If the governor approves, the session would be held this fall.
Lawmakers called for the session, in part, to speed up spending hundreds of millions of dollars in drought-assistance money already allocated to the crisis. The AP previously reported that about half of $687 million allocated to drought aid remains unspent.
“In addition, we are seeing the same slow and lethargic project pace with the funds raised as a result of last year’s Proposition 1 ballot measure,” the letter states.
A spokesman for the governor, Gareth Lacy, apparently would not comment on the prospects for a special session. Instead, he seemed to take a defensive posture, stating that spending on drought projects has been steady and there is “much more on the way.”
Top photo: In this May 6, 2014 photo, Steven Ritchie, an assistant general manager of San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, walks on a bridge over Moccasin reservoir at the Moccasin Powerhouse in Moccasin, Calif. Tuolumne River water rushes through the plant, downstream of Hetch Hetchy reservoir, creating electricity, then is carried by tunnels to San Francisco Bay Area taps. (Jae C. Hong, Associated Press)