Home News Property owners and officials find ways around century-old laws as the West runs out of water

Property owners and officials find ways around century-old laws as the West runs out of water

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Shasta Lake, California’s largest reservoir, is well below its full capacity this year. (George Rhoads, Getty Images)

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Sacramento, CA — Western megadrought drainage reserves, The state is looking for alternatives to handle water rights. Many were set over 100 years ago when the water supply was much more abundant.

At that time, just posting a sign next to the water detour was enough to be considered a right, but it can still be respected. But the climate crisis is now squeezing those rights. California doesn’t have enough water to fill what is allocated on paper.

For years, California has been intensifying the debate over the best ways to modify the water rights system for modern life. Many of the senior water rights held in the state were established before 1914, when a permit system was established and the mining industry was a large corporation.

Nathan Metcalf, a water rights lawyer at California law firm Hanson Bridget, told CNN: “It is not really set up to address both climate change and changing water needs from an environmental perspective, and there is friction between agriculture and local governments.”

Recognizing the serious impact of climate change on state hydrology, California Senate Democrats propose to spend $ 7.5 billion on state and federal funding to “build a climate-resistant water system.” Did.

Of these funds, $ 1.5 billion will be used to purchase land with higher water rights from owners who are willing to sell voluntarily in preferred waters. Democrats argue that “fundamental changes” to the state’s water system “need to readjust supply, supply, and system flexibility.”

The proposal, which has not yet passed the legislature, aims to “gradually eliminate multiple water uses within the basin and across large areas” and improve fish habitat and wildlife evacuation conditions. While helping to provide clean drinking water.

“The problem with trying to regulate senior water rights is that it’s a property right, so you always run the risk of a claim for seizure by robbing that property,” Metcalf said.

If the government seizes private property for public use, the property owner may file a proceeding against the government. Owners can also claim a take if the restrictions on land use are overkill.

But Mr. Metcalf said there may be situations where it may be mutually beneficial for real estate owners to transfer their water rights.

“If it is economically advantageous for both farmers and the state to purchase these water rights and use them for other purposes, I think it is possible,” Metcalf said. “We could also see certain agricultural sectors oppose it because we don’t know when and how to use the water in the future.”

Mr Metcalf said the government could simply buy higher water rights. This is an easier option than trying to regulate those rights, which often leads to years of proceedings.

New approach

In Northern California, the State Water Commission is trying something it has never tried before. A voluntary water sharing agreement for water rights holders in the upper Russian river basin of Mendocino and Sonoma counties.

For months, rightsholders met weekly to come up with an agreement in anticipation of another supply shortage. This is an effort to avoid the reductions caused by water demand exceeding supply due to the severe drought last year.

Sam Boland-Brien, supervisory engineer for the State Water Commission, said: “As a result, all types of surface water users … had to stop detours at the top of this basin.”

In fact, the water level was very low and “there was a very specific risk that Lake Mendocino near Ukiah would be empty,” said Borland Bryen, who said the storm struck last October and previously the lake. He added that it wasn’t dried up. The end of winter.

He said that getting too close to water scarcity helped him find a better way to share water.

The State Water Commission has more than half of eligible water rights holders enrolled in the program, including riverside municipalities with the oldest rights in basins dating back to the late 1800s and local water districts. Said. Institutional winery.

The more rights owners involved, the better. By enrolling in the program, rights owners have promised to reduce water usage by senior owners by up to 20% to 30%. Due to the severe drought, the city is also conserving water. These water savings are also built into what can be shared with other rights owners in the community, Boland-Brien said.

All agreements create a pool of water available to more junior rights owners who would otherwise have reduced water. Participants can also transfer or exchange further with each other for added flexibility.


Those who still have water rights will produce a little. They have reduced their use … (have more junior rights) so that they can accomplish it throughout the irrigation season in smaller quantities.

– Borland-Brian


“What this program achieves is to smooth out the“ all-or-nothing ”aspect of the right system,” Boland-Brien explained. He said a more well-managed voluntary system is more likely to get the approval of rights owners than the state’s regulatory measures alone.

“People who still have water rights will produce a little,” said Borland-Bryen. “They reduced their use … [have more junior rights] You can go through the irrigation season in small quantities. “

Emergency reduction regulations continue to be enforced as a backstop for rights owners who did not participate in the program. As the water level continues to fall, reductions will begin based on seniority.

The program will take effect on July 1st and will end at the end of the year, but may be expanded in the future.

“This is expected to continue, so there are slightly different combinations of water and registrants each year, and even a few years of juniors can benefit from flexibility,” says Borland-Bryen. rice field.

The court decides in favor of deviating from the law

It is consistent with Mike Young, a professor at the University of Adelaide and an expert in water policy reform, stating that it is necessary to equitably deal with water rights in drought-stricken areas. Must be included in the water sharing program.

“Everyone has a percentage share of what’s available, and that goes up and down,” Young told CNN. “There is a board of directors that makes decisions for the benefit of everyone, and everyone has an incentive to make the system work. The board of directors makes the final decision and the profits are allocated to shareholders … you Runs a water accounting system that looks like you a bank account. “

In Nevada, the dispute over groundwater rights in Diamond Valley ended at the Nevada Supreme Court. The Nevada Supreme Court is approved by state engineers when state engineers deviate from Nevada’s water laws based on Diamond Valley water rights priorities and are depleted of Diamond Valley supplies. Water under a new groundwater management plan.


The problem is that America doesn’t have a decent rulebook for playing a game called water use.

– University of Adelaide Mike Young


About four years ago, Young spent time with farmers in the Diamond Valley, a region of Eureka County that relies heavily on groundwater. Too heavy, Young said. According to a court ruling, “The Diamond Valley Hydrobasin has been over-diverted and over-pumped so that the amount of groundwater taken from the basin exceeds its perennial yield.”

“The thing about rivers and groundwater resources is that they don’t lie,” Young said, adding that one day he helped farmers draft a new groundwater management plan.

“Someone has to write down the rulebook. The problem is that America doesn’t have a decent rulebook to play a game called water use,” Young said. He argues that the development of a resource-deficient water accounting system should be fundamental.

“All western irrigators need to have a water account that shows how much water they can get from the system,” Young said. “Everyone sees drinking water that isn’t in your account as bad as going next door and harvesting crops.”

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