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Water wars during California drought?

By AP | Last updated: Jun 4, 2014 - 1:10:43 PM

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SAN FRANCISCO - California’s drought-ravaged reservoirs are running so low that state water deliveries to metropolitan areas have all but stopped, and cutbacks are forcing growers to fallow fields. But 19th century laws allow almost 4,000 companies, farms and others to use an unmonitored amount of water for free—and, in some cases, sell what they don’t need.

With grandfathered legal rights, this group, dominated by big corporations and agricultural concerns, reports using trillions of gallons of water each year, according to a review by The Associated Press. Together, they have more than half of all claims on waterways in California.

However, the state doesn’t know if any are overdrawing or wasting water. The AP found the state’s system is based on self-reported, incomplete records riddled with errors and years out of date.

“We really don’t know how much water they’ve actually diverted,” said Bob Rinker, a manager in the State Water Resources Control Board’s water rights division.

With a burgeoning population and projections of heightened climate-related impacts on snowpack and other water supplies, the antiquated system blunts California’s ability to move water where it’s most needed.

When gold miners flocked to the West in the 1800s, the state drafted laws that rewarded those who first staked claims on the region’s abundant rivers and streams. Today, California still relies on that honor system.

The system’s inequities are particularly evident in the arid Central Valley.

Near Yuba City, second-generation rice farmer Al Montna has been forced to idle 1,800 acres because of scarce water. About 35 miles north, however, fourth-generation Butte County rice farmer Josh Sheppard had more than enough water, thanks to superior rights to Feather River water dating to the late 1800s.

“No one thinks of it when there’s ample water and plenty to go around, but in these times of tightness it is a very contentious resource that gets fought over,” Mr. Sheppard said, standing next to his flooded fields.

To find out how many entities hold these superior rights and how much water they use, the AP obtained the water board’s database for 2010—the last complete year of water usage reports—and interviewed state officials and dozens of landowners.

More than half of the 3,897 entities with active senior and riparian rights to water are corporations, such as the state’s biggest utility, PG&E, which creates hydroelectric power, and the Hearst Corp., which has water rights for its remote, Bavarian-style forest compound called Wyntoon. Also among the biggest rights holders are government agencies such as the water departments of San Francisco and Los Angeles. (AP)

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