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California’s Drought Polices Haven’t Changed

from the publisher

Since the last time I addressed the impending California drought, the Sierras and central valley region have seen record rain and snowfall. The snowpack in the Mt Shasta area has also seen a tremendous amount of snow fall. So, does this mean the drought is over and everything can return to normal? Not so fast! More water doesn’t mean less policy. One of my suppliers told me about water rights and the use of water is not evenly distributed. Does that mean certain parts of California have access to as much water as they need, and other areas are left to dry up? My curiosity into the California’s water rights needed to be better understood.

So, what exactly are the stipulations of California’s water rights? According to Aquaoso**, Unlike land rights, which have clearly defined boundaries, California water rights are based on a unique hybrid system of rights. Surface water rights can be riparian or appropriative, based on the seniority of the rights, and allocated for a particular type of use. They can also be subject to curtailment in drier times. Groundwater rights, generally referred to as “overlying rights,” are now seeing restrictions for the first time due to SGMA (Sustainable Groundwater Management Act). This is important to know since this has an impact on the value of the land it’s attached to and determines whether or not a grower can sustain their crops without buying additional water.

If you look at the ordinances on paper, they seem to be innocuous and straight to the point. As you dig deeper into regulations, you realize that this gives politicians a tremendous amount of power. The complexity of California water rights makes it difficult to assess a water right at face value without doing some additional research. That’s because California uses a system in which the type of right, the seniority of the right, and the intended use of the water all play a role in determining how much water is allocated to a grower each year. Water rights aren’t the only thing to consider when determining the water risk of a piece of agricultural land. It’s worth looking into whether or not the grower will have access to additional water resources at an affordable rate through a smart water market.

**Some states, including California, have systems in place for buying and selling water rights, either on a temporary or permanent basis. Between 2009 and 2018, water rights holders in California leased an average of over 1 million acre-feet of water per year, a total of $295 million dollars annually. While the price of groundwater resources can vary widely between regions and states, water markets like these can go a long way toward mitigating the impact of droughts and water shortages.

As with government run programs, it can be incredibly tedious to find various water rights and doing so consumes time and money. You could visibly see the ration of water to certain areas versus other areas that had no visible sign of a drought. Seniority rights and intended use of water is ripe for abuse and corruption. If you want to rise through the ranks on the seniority list, money and votes never fail. I had a chance to talk with many growers and shippers during my trip.

There was a drought…but the impact is different from county to county. That’s because the water rights treat everyone fair…it’s just that some area get treated a little fairer than others. This is a complex issue so I will do my next article on this subject. And with that, I’ll see you on the road.


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