State Issues

Water rights will be next big California fight

After years of drought, winter’s rain- and snowstorms generated close to a normal supply of water for California. As winter turned to spring, the Bureau of Reclamation announced allocations to farmers.

Rice growers and other farmers in the Sacramento Valley north of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta were pleased to learn that they would receive 100 percent of their contracted water supplies. However, it was bad news for farmers south of the Delta, who were told they would get, at most, just 5 percent of the water they expected this year.

The disparity reflected, in part, environmental restrictions on pumping water from the Delta and sending it south.

It also reflected one of the most vexing aspects of California’s perpetual conflict over water – a complex thicket of water rights dating back to the 19th century that’s fundamentally based on seniority.

As summarized by the Public Policy Institute of California, “Those who own land along a river or who staked early claims on that water have top priority. Those with rights established before the first state water administrative system was created in 1914 are subject to less direct oversight than those with more recent rights. In times of shortage, junior rights are curtailed and right-holders must either reduce their water use or rely on water from other sources.”

The farmers on the West Side of the San Joaquin Valley who see the greatest curtailment of deliveries lack the rights that earlier agricultural regions obtained, usually for rivers that flowed through their areas.

The drought, coupled with fears about the effects of climate change on California’s future water supplies, has already compelled California to rethink aspects of its water situation long thought to be politically untouchable.

It’s led to the first system for regulating use of underground aquifers, which supply about a third of California’s water, and seems to be reducing opposition to creating more reservoirs to capture winter rains.

California’s next water policy frontier, it would seem, is revising its water rights – either directly or indirectly.

The PPIC report on water policy reform, released last year, notes that California already has laws on the books, rarely invoked, that might allow regulators to abridge even the most senior water rights on grounds of public health or safety or environmental damage.

A case pending before the water board, however, indicates the long-simmering water rights issue is beginning to boil.

The board accuses the Byron-Bethany Irrigation District, which reaches from Discovery Bay down to Highway 132 near Vernalis, of continuing to take water from the Delta for 13 days after it and other districts with senior water rights had been told to curtail pumping.

“We are a test case,” Byron-Bethany’s manager, Rick Gilmore, told The Record in Stockton. “I think this has become a larger issue. I think the water board wants to use this as a precedent so they can start to gain more control over senior water right users.”

The case may be headed to the courts, and the outcome will frame the state’s powers to crack the seemingly solid legal wall protecting long-standing water rights, which are especially important in the northern San Joaquin Valley.

Dan Walters writes for The Sacramento Bee on issues of statewide significance; reach him at 916-321-1195 or