‘Paper water” – it’s one of the oldest (and most sarcastic) terms in the world of California water wonks. But it describes all those contracts that professors Ted Grantham and Joshua Viers of UC Merced so diligently quantified in a study released earlier this week. Their numbers were eye-popping, showing that every drop flowing through our rivers and out of our taps is spoken for – five times over.
While that might alarm many, it’s not exactly new.
The state established its overarching water law in 1914, codifying the rights of some and establishing the waiting-list rules for others. Over the last century, contracts built up like barnacles on our state’s water system. Only those with the oldest rights expect to get all their water in good years; the rest have always accepted something less.
In the Northern San Joaquin Valley, many of our irrigation districts got in on the ground floor through the Irrigation Act of 1887. By 1914, their rights were secure. That gives rise to another old phrase: “first-in-time, first-in-line.” Those who sought rights after 1914 had to get in line. That line has grown to roughly 12,000. When there’s not enough water, they get little or none.
That’s what has happened this year, forcing the state to curtail flows to “junior” rights holders and creating a free-for-all up and down the Valley as growers scrambled to keep their crops alive.
Altering that equation, said Viers, was not the purpose of the study. The goal is to get people thinking about water in the 21st century terms instead of 19th.
“There’s nothing new in what our analysis has shown,” said Viers, a Sonora native who now teaches water resources planning and management. “What we’re showing is that there’s a lot of paper water out there; I think that gives the public a false sense of security.”
The data show the hot spots where controversies can arise. No place was hotter than the San Joaquin River, which allocates every drop eight times over to junior rights holders.
The real value in this study is its implications for the future. With a warming climate, the timing of the snowmelt and flows into our Valley will be altered. These changes could spark even more conflict. “The total amount of water hasn’t necessarily changed,” said Viers, “but the form of it has changed. When it arrives is changing. We’re going to have drier years, and that means we’re going to have more losers among those junior rights holders.
“We need the tools to know if, and when, the water is available.”
As Viers put it, “you can’t manage what you don’t measure.”
Our concern is how the measured water is then allocated. The conclusion of the Grantham-Viers paper mentioned developing “innovative solutions” to address the challenges, “including market schemes” and “institutional reforms.”
Forgive our wariness, but any “scheme” to impose market discipline on water allocation will work to our disadvantage. That’s not to say we shouldn’t put a far greater value on water – we must. But if water goes on a market, available to the highest bidder, our growers and farmers will be at a distinct disadvantage.
Irrigation districts were created as a progressive reaction to concentration of wealth during the Gilded Age. Rather than let private water companies dictate prices and flow, citizens banded together to build their own dams and canals and to share this sometimes too-scarce resource. It’s still the best way we know of to create shared prosperity, no matter how you measure it.