News Feature | April 23, 2014

Water Rights Policies, Not Just Weather, Drying Up California

Sara Jerome

By Sara Jerome,

The weather is not the only challenge for parched California water districts. Outdated water policies may exacerbate difficulties caused by the drought. 

"The inequities of California's system of water rights, a hierarchy of haves as old as the state," is a major problem for the Golden State, according to an analysis piece in the Los Angeles Times

"Thanks to seniority, powerful Central Valley irrigation districts that most Californians have never heard of are at the head of the line for vast amounts of water, even at the expense of the environment and the rest of the state," the report said. 

Water-rich districts include the Glenn-Colusa, Oakdale, South San Joaquin, and Turlock districts.

"The average amount of Sacramento River water that Glenn-Colusa growers annually pump, for example, is enough to supply Los Angeles and San Francisco for a year," the report said. 

For instance, in 2013, water allocations across the state were cut, but Glenn-Colusa drew its usual amount, the report said. 

Lawmakers and regulators have not been helpful in rectifying the problem. They "have been loath to interfere with [water rights], regardless of the fact there’s no longer enough water to satisfy everyone who has staked a claim to a supply and despite the fact the policy has brought on an environmental disaster," KQED reported

Terrain helps divvy up political factions. "California water politics is mostly about geography — Northern California's watershed versus the Central Valley, which relies on that water coming south to irrigate crops, versus Southern California, with its massive and thirsty urban population," KPCC, Southern California Public Radio, reported.

Politics may help decide where the drought hits hardest. "The nation’s largest agricultural water district, located in the Central Valley, spent $600,000 on lobbying efforts, according to an analysis by KPCC in partnership with the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics. That's by far Westlands' biggest annual expenditure for lobbying — about six times what it spent in 2010," KPPC said. 

For more on policy and politics, check out Water Online's Regulations and Legislation Solution Center


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