Enterprise Bridge crosses what's left of Lake Oroville in Butte County, CA in 2014. Getty Images.

A solution for California’s water woes

In a decision bursting with symbolism, the California State Water Resources Control Board recently announced its intention to draw down the main water supply reservoir for a half-million people to only 12 percent of capacity by September 30. Lake Folsom on the American River — the main water source for Roseville, Folsom, and other Sacramento suburbs — will plummet to 120,000 acre feet by that date, according to a forecast by the water board, which announced the plan at an unusually lively Sacramento workshop on June 24.

The artificial lake will therefore be only months away from turning into a dreaded “dead pool,” a state in which a reservoir becomes so low it cannot drain by gravity through the dam’s outlet. Such an outcome would leave area residents scrambling for water — if recent predictions of an El Niño weather pattern fizzle and rain fails to appear later in 2015. If that were to happen, then Folsom could be a harbinger for the rest of California.

Indeed, as the American West lurches through its fourth summer of an historic drought, numerous major reservoirs are at or near historic lows relative to the time of year. New Melones Reservoir on the Stanislaus River in Calaveras and Tuolumne counties, which was only 16 percent full as of last week, appears likely to meet the same fate as Folsom this year. A study by UC San Diego’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography in 2008, three years before the current drought began, warned that the nation’s largest reservoir, Nevada’s Lake Mead (which supplies much of Southern California), has a fifty-fifty chance of running dry by 2021.

State and federal water management officials have contended that the current state of emergency has come to pass due to a natural disaster beyond their control. Water board member Steven Moore has called the drought “our Hurricane Sandy.” In April, after Jerry Brown stood on a Sierra summit barren of snow and announced the state’s first-ever mandatory water restrictions, an official press release from the governor’s office asserted that for “more than two years, the state’s experts have been managing water resources to ensure that the state survives this drought and is better prepared for the next one.”

But according to critics, the opposite is true. One of the main reasons that California’s reservoirs have plummeted to nearly cataclysmic lows, they say, is that federal and state water managers sent enormous quantities of water in recent years to senior water rights holders, especially water districts that supply agribusinesses in the dry San Joaquin Valley. “Much the way Congress and federal regulators gave Wall Street a huge legal pass and billions in bailout money for crashing the US and global economies last decade, so does the State Water Resources Control Board coddle state and federal water projects and their thirsty contractors for managing their water supplies to the point that the systems on which they depend are themselves circling the drain,” said Tim Stroshane, a water policy analyst for the conservation advocacy group Restore the Delta.

Stroshane notes that, in 2012, the first year of the drought, the US Bureau of Reclamation and California Division of Water Resources (DWR), which manage the Central Valley Project and State Water Project, respectively, awarded full water allocations in the hopes that 2013 would be a wet year. And while the projects slashed allocations to zero in 2014-15 for so-called “junior water rights contractors,” senior water rights holders have still received close to their full allotments.

From December through April, the Bureau of Reclamation and DWR pumped 1.25 million acre-feet of water from the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta into California’s southern canals and reservoirs, thereby depleting an already limited cold water supply in Lake Shasta and other Northern California reservoirs.

Despite the current dire situation, California water officials have continued to defend their management practices during the drought. “The water we provide has been essential to agriculture and municipalities throughout the state, and we’ve cut back as much as we can to maintain the supply,” said Doug Carlson, a spokesperson for the state Department of Water Resources, in a recent interview.

But a growing cadre of environmentalists, fishermen, indigenous people, academics, and even some farmers contend that the basic problem is the dramatic over-allocation of California’s rivers. In 2012, Stroshane authored a study of the Sacramento and San Joaquin river systems that determined water rights claims amount to five times more water than what actually flows through these rivers and their tributaries in an average year. A 2014 UC Davis study reached virtually the same conclusion regarding the state in its entirety.

And at the heart of this extreme over-allocation problem is the state’s archaic water rights system, which was created more than 160 years ago. This outdated patchwork of rules and legal loopholes creates perverse incentives to pump scarce water supplies, especially if favored elements of the state’s powerful agribusiness sector are the ultimate beneficiary. Moreover, aspects of the system are so complex and counterintuitive that many Californians have no idea how it really works. “People understand there are big oil companies that control the political economy of oil,” Stroshane said. “They understand less about who controls the water in their own rivers, even where they live. It’s incredibly important to understand that.”

Although California’s dysfunctional water rights system, much like its tax system, has long been considered a political third rail, the historic drought is prompting increasing calls for proposals that would finally address it. And some say that perhaps the best legal mechanism available for untangling the state’s water woes is a process called adjudication: a legal framework that has contributed to saving fish and the environment on the Klamath River in Southern Oregon and would determine who really has valid water rights in California, how much water can be used, who has priority during shortages, and even whose water use is reasonable and whose is not.

After all, the current system has helped propel the state toward a major crisis in which human population centers could become bereft of water, while fish populations — that only a half-century ago were relatively abundant — continue to plunge toward the dark abyss of extinction.

During the Gold Rush, miners who crowded into California’s foothills found that water was essential for the pans, sluices, rockers, and other devices used to work promising gravels. But California’s dry summers posed a serious obstacle. So miners decided to divert water, often from great distances, to ensure a profit from nature’s bounty.

American westward expansion privileged the rights of the first arrivals to an area, including the promise that the first settler on public land had the right to buy a homestead for a low price. Similarly, the right to a gold claim went to the first person working it. “First in time, first in right” became a founding principle of California’s legal framework. Known as the doctrine of “prior appropriation,” it soon extended to the right to divert water to work a mining claim.

For irrigation needed for farming, shares were apportioned according to crude 19th-century notions of how much water was required to get forty acres of dry soil to produce a crop. In times of drought, those with the oldest, or most “senior,” rights to water would get it first; those with the newest rights would have to wait at the back of the line. “Prior appropriation” remains the dominant principle in Western water law to this day.

Until 1914, California water rights were obtained either by purchasing land next to a river or by posting a noticed claim at the site of an intended river diversion or dam, and then recording that claim at the local county Recorder’s Office. Beginning on December 19, 1914 — the start date for California’s formal administrative system of water rights regulation that had been approved by voters — appropriative water rights came via an application with the state water rights board. Today, that authority is vested in the Division of Water Rights of the State Water Resources Control Board.

“Those who started development and use water first have first priority of rights,” explained water board Assistant Deputy Director John O’Hagan, who heads the water board’s water rights enforcement division. “That’s where your stacking of rights and priorities to water come in. In a drought year like this year, where water supply is diminished to a point where there isn’t enough water for all water rights in the system, the State Water Board looks to a curtailment process to make sure priority rights are satisfied first.”

California is not alone in its use of prior appropriation for water, although it was first in the United States to adopt the system. And the resulting over-appropriation of water, critics say, has created long-term problems throughout the arid West. For example, when officials from seven states divvied up the rights to water in the mighty Colorado River nearly a century ago, it happened to be a wetter period than usual. The states, as a result, vastly overestimated the river’s annual flow. Today, the river’s reserves are especially low and states are still claiming rights to the same amount of water from the Colorado River that they always have — 1.4 trillion gallons a year more than the river actually produces.

In Southern California, water also comes from enormous canals that carry cargoes of Colorado River water like freight trains across the Mojave Desert to Los Angeles and San Diego, and to agricultural swaths of sameness in the Imperial Valley. These arid regions’ reliance on imported water is almost unparalleled, and is often what comes to mind when thinking about the dysfunction and unsustainability of California’s water system.

But the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta and San Francisco Bay, which make up the largest estuary on the West Coast of the Americas, are equally fraught with problems. The delta is where California’s two largest rivers (the Sacramento and San Joaquin) culminate. It is also subject to one of the world’s most staggering human-wrought manipulations of a watershed: an elaborate infrastructure of dams, reservoirs, power plants, pumping plants, canals, aqueducts, gates, tunnels, and other machinations designed to control exactly where water goes and who gets it.

In his classic 1952 novel East of Eden, which explored the lives of Anglo-American families living in the Salinas Valley between the late 1800s and World War II, John Steinbeck offered this succinct summary of Californians’ relationship with water: “And it never failed that during the dry years the people forgot about the rich years, and during the wet years they lost all memory of the dry years. It was always that way.”

If Steinbeck had been writing about state and federal water managers and how they’ve handled California’s water supply, he might have instead written the following: “And it never failed that even during the dry years they assumed the next year would be a rich year, and during the wet years they lost all memory of the dry years. It was always that way.”

Stroshane noted earlier this year that in the last 28 water years (since the beginning of the 1987–92 drought), above-normal precipitation has occurred just 11 times (39 percent of the time) in the San Joaquin and Sacramento river basins. Yet in the first year of multi-year droughts, the state and federal governments have still provided full allocations to junior water rights holders in hopes that the next year would be an above-normal wet year that would restore full supplies. When those years (and other years following) are not wet, allocations are cut back. In 2014 and again this year, allocations by the Bureau of Reclamation for junior water contractors north and south of the delta have been zero. However, senior water rights holders have received their full allotments in all but five of the 28 years that Stroshane studied.

California’s most powerful senior water rights holders sport a pair of fairly innocuous names: the San Joaquin River Exchange Contractors and the Sacramento River Settlement Contractors. The rights of these contractors are also bolstered, historians note, by agreements they reached with the federal government at the time that California’s modern water infrastructure was under construction. During the present drought, the legacy of these agreements has been consequential.

As early as 1889, California led the nation in irrigated agriculture with nearly 14,000 farmers watering a million acres, most of them between Stockton and Bakersfield. With the appearance of the modern pump in the 1890s, many turned to groundwater. But California’s most powerful agricultural interests were those that controlled the state’s surface waters. And a single corporation, Miller & Lux, owned by cattle baron Henry Miller, managed to gobble up premier water rights on the San Joaquin River.

By the early 20th century, Miller & Lux had transferred its water rights to companies that today make up the San Joaquin River Exchange Contractors. In the late 1930s, these senior water rights holders reached an agreement with the US Bureau of Reclamation: In exchange for permitting the bureau to divert the San Joaquin River’s flows south to Tulare and Kern counties, mostly for agribusiness, the Exchange Contractors would receive an equivalent volume of water from the delta. The bureau maintains that supply in Lake Shasta in the northernmost section of the state and sends it down the Sacramento River to the delta.

During the current drought, the Exchange Contractors have received nearly their full allotment of water. And so have the Sacramento River Settlement Contractors. Among these contractors is the Glenn-Colusa Irrigation District, which spans the westside of the Sacramento River and several of its westside creeks. Glenn-Colusa is entitled to an 825,000 acre-foot annual allotment of water from federal reservoirs (equivalent to roughly one-fifth of Lake Shasta’s capacity), and this year is receiving 618,000 acre-feet.

Because of the sheer volume of rights held by the Settlement Contractors, combined with their seniority, many have found it lucrative during the drought to sell their water to wealthy agribusinesses in the San Joaquin Valley that have had their supplies curtailed because of their junior status. Known as “groundwater substitution transfers,” these deals involve “willing sellers” selling their surface water rights back to the bureau or the California Department of Water Resources, which then transport the water to buyers, most of them south of the delta, using the export pumps near Tracy. The main recipients of the water in these deals include the wealthy and famously well-connected Westlands Water District and the Kern County Water Agency, and their almond and pistachio farmers in the dry western and southern San Joaquin Valley.

After selling their surface water rights, these irrigators north of the delta turn to groundwater pumping to replace what they’ve sold — a system that environmentalists and even some farmers say is perverse. “We perceive the export of water from here to Westlands and other south-of-the-delta users as absolutely madness that replicates what’s happened to the Owens Valley and San Joaquin Valley,” said Barbara Vlamis, executive director of the Chico-based group Aqualliance, referring to two California regions known for the plunder of their water supplies. “It’s causing groundwater to decline at an alarming rate here.”

Groundwater substitution transfers, Vlamis contends, are at the leading edge of a longer-term water grab that originated with the Kern County Water Bank. It involves the extraction of Sacramento Valley groundwater to substitute for water exported to a publicly funded Kern County water supply controlled by billionaire Stewart Resnick, owner of Paramount Farms, and other powerful ag and water interests.

Groundwater substitution transfers are also contributing to the massive over-pumping of California’s groundwater supply. According to a recent study by NASA, eight trillion gallons of water have been pumped each year since 2011 from aquifers in California’s Central Valley — which includes both the Sacramento Valley north of the delta and the San Joaquin Valley to the south. In some areas, the land is sinking a foot a year as agribusinesses tap groundwater that accrued 15,000 to 20,000 years ago.

One of the original sins of California’s water rights system that remains unaddressed, observers note, is that its fails to connect groundwater and surface water. “A lot of states have gotten rid of the groundwater free-for-all approach and have established permitting systems,” said David Keller, a former Petaluma city councilmember who is currently the Bay Area director of Friends of the Eel River. “If California is to work its way through these problems, it has to redo its water rights system. That’s obviously a huge, contentious deal politically, but it has to be done.”


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On Sept 19, 2023 ahead of the Climate Ambition Summit in New York City, climate activists gathered for a rally and civil disobedience outside Bank of America Tower in Midtown Manhattan as part of the March to End Fossil Fuels wave of actions resulting in multiple arrests. Activists demand Bank of America to “Defund Climate Chaos and Defend Human Rights” Photo: Erik McGregor (CC BY-NC 2.0 Deed)

Let’s Save Each Other

Let’s Save Each Other

Illustration by Stephanie McMillan. Used with permission