Reform water rights

Illustration by Miguel Gutierrez Jr., CalMatters; iStock
Illustration by Miguel Gutierrez Jr., CalMatters; iStock

California’s water supplies are governed by an arcane and complex rights system based on the Gold Rush-era philosophy of “first in time, first in right.” Generally, those with the oldest claims are the last to be cut back during shortages. 

Environmental justice advocates and legal experts point out that this system of seniority is plagued with inequalities and based on a history of violence and systematic exclusion of Native peoples and people of color. Legislative analysts also warned more than a decade ago that, in some cases, water rights are “oversubscribed,” meaning they allocate more water than is available.

The latest drought prompted California officials to periodically curtail water rights across the state as supplies dwindled. But a scuffle in the Shasta Valley, when some ranchers temporarily refused to comply, revealed that the state’s enforcement muscle is slow to flex and hamstrung by restrictions on penalties. 

Water law experts have been pushing for changes. Recommendations include increasing funding to help Tribes and other underrepresented groups participate in state water proceedings, and granting state water regulators more authority to act swiftly when people violate curtailment orders. 

A water board spokesperson said that they are developing pilot projects to collect real-time data about water diversions, and are considering “adopting regulations that would allow for curtailments of water rights in years when there is not a declared drought emergency.”