In January, California Governor Jerry Brown declared the state to be in an drought State of Emergency for unprecedented levels this upcoming summer. “With our final snow survey showing water content at just 18 percent of average for May 1,” said Director of the California Department of Water Resources Mark Cowin, “it’s more important than ever to remind Californians to conserve.” Brown has called for a 20 percent reduction in water usage by all Californians.
Earlier in May, a radio campaign by Save Our Water was released statewide to media in densely populated areas such as Los Angeles and San Francisco containing tips on how to conserve and manage water usage. Save Our Water is a statewide program, created in 2009 by the Department of Water Resources and the Association of California Water Agencies. Although mostly active during drought seasons, Save Our Water intends to inspire permanent water conservation, regardless of water shortages. However, as this summer will reach unprecedented levels of water shortage, even compared to other major drought years, preparation by Californians is being emphasized as especially crucial.
On May 14, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and California Department of Fish and Wildlife proposed the California Voluntary Drought Initiative (CVDI). If passed, the CVDI will require water diversions to maintain minimum flow levels in the state’s high priority rivers that contain State and federally listed Chinook salmon and steelhead.
A water-rights hierarchy, an antiquated law existing uniquely today in California, determines the diversions. These laws date back to gold rush booms of the 1800s, with many of the water-rights laws being only as current as 1914. Under the water rights law, senior water-rights holders take top priority when there is not enough water for all water-rights holders. This means that junior water-rights holders will have to stop diverting water to ensure adequate water flow to senior rights holders.
After three years of drought, The Associated Press has investigated the records of the state’s Water Resources Control Board, and the power senior rights holders wield to sap California of its water supply. According to their reports of the records, senior rights holders hold over half of the rights to California rivers and streams.
The report finds that major users and senior rights holders, such as the Southern California Edison and Pacific Gas and Electric Co., use trillions of gallons of water each year altogether. The Associated Press findings revealed these major users are only required to self-report, and that their reports to the state were either incomplete, erroneous, or both. Regardless, this inaccurate usage data is still used to grant new water permits. Bob Rinker, a manager in the Water Resources Control Board, says of the nearly 4,000 companies, agencies, farms, and others who enjoy this unsupervised access that “we really don’t know how much water they’ve actually diverted.”
It might come as a surprise that the amount of water used by the top 25 users as reported by the state were in many cases overstated. Executive Director of the Water Resources Control Board Tom Howard believes this is an attempt to continue the right to draw as much water as needed in the future. Unlike other western states with similar issues, such as Colorado and Wyoming, rights holders have been largely successful in blocking legislation that would allow for more state oversight.
Senior rights holders allows for certain longstanding farmers to thrive while others have to let entire fields go dry and idle, laying off workers and productivity. This disproportion is especially magnified in the state where close to two-thirds of the total usable water supply goes towards agriculture.
In complete relationship to its drought, California and other southwestern states and parts of Alaska are preparing for “above normal” fire risks this summer. California has already responded to twice the normal amount of fires for this time of the year, a major indicator of the unprecedented drought that the state must prepare for this summer.
By Jesse Eells-Adams