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Saturday, June 25, 2022

Walters: As drought persists, water rights on California’s agenda

As the third year of drought continues, California officials are mounting pressure to conserve more water.

Last week, the State Water Resources Control Board imposed a statewide ban on the watering of “non-functional” turf, such as grass around commercial buildings, and directed local water agencies to enforce water use restrictions.

“California is facing a drought crisis and every local water agency and California needs to step up conservation efforts,” Gov. Gavin Newsom said in a supporting statement.

Despite the official ballyhoo, last week’s actions were at best Newsom’s predecessor, Jerry Brown, mandated cut during the last drought.

It appears that Newsom, running for re-election, doesn’t want to be the person who tells Californians they can’t water their lawns as much as they’d like. He will leave it up to local water officials to crack down.

However, no matter how they are formulated, the new directives are unlikely to have more than a minor impact on California’s growing water scarcity because residential use is a relatively small factor in the water equation. California’s largest agricultural industry is by far the largest user of a developed and managed water supply.

The big question is whether the state is doing anything to address the long-term gap between water supply and water demand as climate change alters rainfall patterns. Conservation, especially agricultural water, will help more efficient use, but we need more storage, such as a long-delayed site reservoir, to take advantage of wet years.

Newsom’s latest budget proposal claims to make big investments to improve water security, but most of the money will go to smaller-scale projects that are on the margins. It proposes just half a billion additional dollars for water storage, while dumping several billion more into the state’s ill-conceived and poorly managed bullet train project.

If we are serious about tackling semi-permanent drought conditions, the most important – and most controversial – step will be to rethink that between agriculture, urban users and the flows needed to support endangered species like salmon. How limited supplies are allocated.

By necessity, such a comprehensive approach – starting with more or less a clean sheet of paper – would require a fresh look at the state’s surprisingly complex water rights.

Those having such rights consider them holy. But the drought is so severe that even senior rights holders are feeling the pinch, as CalMatters author Rachel Baker details in a recent article on the effects of drought in the Sacramento Valley.

Rethinking water rights seems to be gaining momentum in water policy circles.

A water policy paper released by the leadership of the state Senate this month proposes that the state buy rights from agricultural holders to provide more water for housing improvements as part of a $7.5 billion plan “to create climate resilient water systems.” “

As the state water board pushed for more conservation last week, a coalition of Indian tribes and environmental groups demanded that it be more aggressive about enforcing water quality standards in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and these Restructure water rights as necessary to enforce the standards. ,

The demand cites the history of white settlers appropriating water supplies from natives in the 19th century and suggests that water rights could be reconfigured under a state constitution’s provision that water only “Fair use” is legal.

The Water Board was considering such direct action, but stopped it, while the Newsom administration has attempted to create so-called “voluntary agreements” that would divert more water from agriculture to increase the river’s flow.

Dan Walters is a columnist for CalMatters.

World Nation News Desk
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