A Solution for California's Water Woes 

During the drought, the state has failed to safeguard water supplies and the environment, and now there's a growing call to finally fix California's archaic "water rights" system.

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Stroshane noted earlier this year that in the last 28 water years (since the beginning of the 1987–92 drought), above-normal precipitation has occurred just 11 times (39 percent of the time) in the San Joaquin and Sacramento river basins. Yet in the first year of multi-year droughts, the state and federal governments have still provided full allocations to junior water rights holders in hopes that the next year would be an above-normal wet year that would restore full supplies. When those years (and other years following) are not wet, allocations are cut back. In 2014 and again this year, allocations by the Bureau of Reclamation for junior water contractors north and south of the delta have been zero. However, senior water rights holders have received their full allotments in all but five of the 28 years that Stroshane studied.

California's most powerful senior water rights holders sport a pair of fairly innocuous names: the San Joaquin River Exchange Contractors and the Sacramento River Settlement Contractors. The rights of these contractors are also bolstered, historians note, by agreements they reached with the federal government at the time that California's modern water infrastructure was under construction. During the present drought, the legacy of these agreements has been consequential.

As early as 1889, California led the nation in irrigated agriculture with nearly 14,000 farmers watering a million acres, most of them between Stockton and Bakersfield. With the appearance of the modern pump in the 1890s, many turned to groundwater. But California's most powerful agricultural interests were those that controlled the state's surface waters. And a single corporation, Miller & Lux, owned by cattle baron Henry Miller, managed to gobble up premier water rights on the San Joaquin River.

By the early 20th century, Miller & Lux had transferred its water rights to companies that today make up the San Joaquin River Exchange Contractors. In the late 1930s, these senior water rights holders reached an agreement with the US Bureau of Reclamation: In exchange for permitting the bureau to divert the San Joaquin River's flows south to Tulare and Kern counties, mostly for agribusiness, the Exchange Contractors would receive an equivalent volume of water from the delta. The bureau maintains that supply in Lake Shasta in the northernmost section of the state and sends it down the Sacramento River to the delta.

During the current drought, the Exchange Contractors have received nearly their full allotment of water. And so have the Sacramento River Settlement Contractors. Among these contractors is the Glenn-Colusa Irrigation District, which spans the westside of the Sacramento River and several of its westside creeks. Glenn-Colusa is entitled to an 825,000 acre-foot annual allotment of water from federal reservoirs (equivalent to roughly one-fifth of Lake Shasta's capacity), and this year is receiving 618,000 acre-feet.

Because of the sheer volume of rights held by the Settlement Contractors, combined with their seniority, many have found it lucrative during the drought to sell their water to wealthy agribusinesses in the San Joaquin Valley that have had their supplies curtailed because of their junior status. Known as "groundwater substitution transfers," these deals involve "willing sellers" selling their surface water rights back to the bureau or the California Department of Water Resources, which then transport the water to buyers, most of them south of the delta, using the export pumps near Tracy. The main recipients of the water in these deals include the wealthy and famously well-connected Westlands Water District and the Kern County Water Agency, and their almond and pistachio farmers in the dry western and southern San Joaquin Valley.

After selling their surface water rights, these irrigators north of the delta turn to groundwater pumping to replace what they've sold — a system that environmentalists and even some farmers say is perverse. "We perceive the export of water from here to Westlands and other south-of-the-delta users as absolutely madness that replicates what's happened to the Owens Valley and San Joaquin Valley," said Barbara Vlamis, executive director of the Chico-based group Aqualliance, referring to two California regions known for the plunder of their water supplies. "It's causing groundwater to decline at an alarming rate here."

Groundwater substitution transfers, Vlamis contends, are at the leading edge of a longer-term water grab that originated with the Kern County Water Bank. It involves the extraction of Sacramento Valley groundwater to substitute for water exported to a publicly funded Kern County water supply controlled by billionaire Stewart Resnick, owner of Paramount Farms, and other powerful ag and water interests.

Groundwater substitution transfers are also contributing to the massive over-pumping of California's groundwater supply. According to a recent study by NASA, eight trillion gallons of water have been pumped each year since 2011 from aquifers in California's Central Valley — which includes both the Sacramento Valley north of the delta and the San Joaquin Valley to the south. In some areas, the land is sinking a foot a year as agribusinesses tap groundwater that accrued 15,000 to 20,000 years ago.

One of the original sins of California's water rights system that remains unaddressed, observers note, is that its fails to connect groundwater and surface water. "A lot of states have gotten rid of the groundwater free-for-all approach and have established permitting systems," said David Keller, a former Petaluma city councilmember who is currently the Bay Area director of Friends of the Eel River. "If California is to work its way through these problems, it has to redo its water rights system. That's obviously a huge, contentious deal politically, but it has to be done."

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