In times of crisis, drastic measures born out of panic almost always make things worse, and the same applies to dealing with California’s current drought.
There is no doubt that people, farms, our communities, and the environment are suffering. And there is a theory being floated among the state’s water bureaucracy that if we abandon our long-established system of water rights, our problems will be solved.
They won’t. Water rights are not the cause of California’s changing weather patterns and neither discarding this long-established law, nor fighting the legal battles that would result from trying to do so, will move, store, or create one drop of water.
Water rights provide stability during dry times
Water rights, a form of property rights, lend some predictability to water users in times of scarcity. Cities, businesses, farms, and rural communities all need some idea of available supply during a drought in order to plan and adjust.
In addition, it’s important to understand that even under existing water rights, regulators have sufficient flexibility to alter water deliveries in critical situations. In 2021 and 2022 those powers were used to make drastic cuts to most farms and some cities, with many farms receiving none of their normal allocation.
A safe food supply is a matter of national security
Under the state constitution, all water, no matter the rights attached to it, must be put to “beneficial use.” We argue that maintaining a healthy, abundant, and safe food supply is also a matter of national security. Sixty percent of our nation’s fruits, nuts and vegetables come from California and that production cannot simply be moved to other states. If we abandon California farms, we’re accepting food shortages, higher prices, and more imports from foreign countries, many with significantly lower safety standards. To put it in perspective, for every acre that is left unplanted because of a lack of irrigation water, it is the equivalent of 50,000 salads that would not be available to consumers.
And while most calls to eliminate water rights are aimed at farmers, upending the system would impact all Californians.
Some of the most senior water rights holders are water agencies in major metropolitan areas such as San Francisco and other Bay Area cities serving more than 1.8 million Californians.
We can store more water in wet years without harm
The inconvenient truth for all Californians is that our state has not moved quickly enough to deal with the impacts of climate change. For some time, climate scientists have been telling us that precipitation in the form of rain instead of snow is the new normal. That means we must build additional storage for both above and below ground water in order to capture water when Mother Nature delivers it. A recent policy brief by the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) echoed the need for more storage saying, “. . .it is possible to do a better job of storing water during wet years—both above and below ground—without doing harm.”
The kind of projects needed include new or expanded reservoirs that can serve as environmentally-friendly water storage. New canals and pipelines would help distribute floodwater to areas in California’s Central Valley and also help recharge groundwater basins. PPIC estimates increasing storage could allow us to capture between 400,000 and 800,000 acre-feet of water each year, enough to serve hundreds of thousands of homes for a year or grow literally millions of salads.
There is money to pay for projects right now
And we have the money to do this. The federal government passed a huge infrastructure bill last year and California’s government currently has a $100 billion surplus.
Difficult times call for balanced, collaborative solutions, not drastic measures like upending water rights, which solves nothing and could make things worse for all Californians.