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What Are Water Rights?

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Absorb this juicy mini-history of California's most precious resource, and then remember to mutter: "Leave it Jake, it's Chinatown."

I'm both more infuriated and more confused than ever.

We seem to have built a Water Industrial Complex that is immune to attempts to change it.

Here's the part where the system resists change:

Why are so many people angry about this system?

One of the biggest criticism of the state’s water board in California is that it has handed out too many claims while failing to take other measures that would ensure conservation of water sources. It has been reported that allocations have been granted for five times the amount of the state’s annual supply, yet there are huge accountability issues with tracking how the water is actually used. Some say rights should come with a requirement for farmers to switch to more efficient watering methods like drip irrigation. 

Of particular concern is a quirk in the water rights nicknamed “use it or lose it.” If a farmer, for example, doesn’t use all the water he was allocated, his future rights to that water might be revoked. This could cause farmers to waste water just to ensure that they’ll get rights to the same amount the next year. 

Also criticized is the practice of still giving priority to senior rights holders from before 1914. It seems a bit ridiculous to still honor rights that date to a time when California’ population was only 2.5 million and the LA Aqueduct was the only major piece of water infrastructure in the state. 

The economic and environmental landscape have changed so dramatically, especially when it comes to farming. But many of the senior rights holders are also very large and powerful entities which could lobby against legislation or bring lawsuits against the state if they suddenly changed the rules. 

So can’t we change the way this works?

Hey, that sounds like a great idea! Many people have been pushing for a reformed system that would do away with existing water rights, including establishing a set price for water every year. Australia reformed its water rights after its catastrophic 2000 drought (which has technically lasted 15 years). 

Australia’s Water Act of 2007 changed the way that water is allocated to farmers and cities. At the beginning of each year, scientists look at all available water to determine how much each claim is awarded and how much it will cost. Since rights holders know how much water they will get (and that their supply is finite for that year), it incentivizes conservation or investments like putting long-term storage systems into place. 

While California hasn’t proposed any such changes yet, it would seem that the time is right for some sweeping reforms.

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