California’s Water Issues Explained


Profiting from a Public Resource

Water rights are not property rights. Yet throughout California, they are being treated as if they were.

The California Constitution declares that water belongs to all of the people. Water rights convey the privilege of using water, not owning it, and only if the water is used for “reasonable and beneficial” purposes. In other words, the privilege is conditional on not being wasteful.

Our water bills cover the cost of moving water from where it is found to where it is used. We pay for canals, pumps, pipelines and management services. Most of the facilities have been built at public expense.

Yet water sales from willing sellers to willing buyers are euphemistically called “water transfers” and wasteful practices go unchallenged as we struggle to resolve our water future. Water transfers have been almost universally accepted as the best, most equitable way to reallocate this precious resource—regardless of their true equity or long term social, economic or environmental impacts.

More than 80% of developed water in the state is used by agriculture. The low cost of most agricultural water gives growers little or no incentive to use water efficiently. The rule is “use it or lose it,” for if water is not used, the right to it is threatened. But it is OK to sell unused allocations and profit from the sale.

Historically, transfers have taken place between farmers, typically within the same irrigation district; profit has not been the motive. What is now proposed and beginning to happen are sales from agribusiness water districts to urban water agencies, where profit is most definitely the motive.

Why is no one publicly challenging the sale of this water, allowing growers to profit from facilities built with tax dollars? Why is no one examining the public interest in such sales?

Just as the issue of farmers benefiting from public investment has been avoided, no one is seriously talking about determining just how much water is really needed and where to meet our economic, social and environmental needs.

Money is made from selling water, not from conserving it.

Twenty-five years ago, the electrical industry was projecting energy usage compounding at 7% a year, doubling in 10 years. This led to predictions of a nuclear power plant every 50 miles along the coast of California. It was this prospect that led to the formation of the state Energy Resources, Conservation and Development Commission, which was given the job of predicting real demand, after considering all cost-effective efficiencies. As a result, not a single new power plant has since been built in California, and consumers are getting stuck with paying for “stranded investments” such as old nuclear power plants no longer needed or unable to compete on the open market.

The water industry now finds itself in similar circumstances and also is unwilling to discipline
itself. Money is made from selling water, not from conserving it. Water industry executives pray for dry weather because then they sell more water. Few water agencies, especially in Northern California, are serious about making efficient use of what we have or in reclaiming water for reuse, though there are signs that attitudes are beginning to change.

Here in Southern California, while the Metropolitan Water District does have incentive programs to encourage conservation and reuse, not all of its member agencies take advantage of them.

The State Water Resources Control Board has the authority and the obligation to do for water what the energy commission has done for electric power. The CalFed Bay-Delta Program, a cooperative state and federal effort to repair the damage to the San Francisco Bay Delta watershed from generations of abuse as well as to meet future water needs, could also enforce more efficient water use for most of the state. But the political will to enforce efficiencies does not exist.

The politics of water is heavily influenced by those in the water community who contribute to election campaigns—big agriculture. Farmers have always been independent folks, resenting anyone telling them what to do. Just as they refuse to manage their ground water reservoirs so that wet year surpluses can be stored underground against dry year need, so many of them give halfhearted lip service to irrigating efficiently. Using less water, of course, would threaten their water rights—unless they could sell any surplus for profit.

For instance, Arvin Edison, a major agricultural contractor for San Joaquin River water, is proposing to sell 450,000 acre-feet of water to the overwhelmingly urban Metropolitan Water District—completely beyond Arvin Edison’s own area.

Something is wrong with this picture. We need to take a whole new look at the meaning of water rights and base the allocation of our precious water resources on true need, not on historic usage. How to accomplish this is the dilemma facing our water future. California has ample water to meet all its environmental, social and economic needs, if we can find a way to allocate it more rationally.

Photo © Christina Speed

Photo © Christina Speed

Principles for a Sustainable Water Future

California’s water is a public resource; its use, however, is subject to private rights to its use.

The State is required by law to protect the public trust in California’s water for the access and enjoyment of all. Unfortunately, this clear legal obligation is frequently ignored in policy making. Major river systems such as the San Joaquin River have been degraded for private benefit, destroying public trust resources.

Massive publicly funded projects have been built in regions relatively abundant in water for deliveries to areas where water is scarce, fueling uncontrolled and ultimately unsustainable growth. However, some ambitious and extremely expensive projects cannot deliver water as promised because of increasing concern over water quality and habitat and endangered species protection. Yet California continues to grow, putting ever-increasing pressure on our limited water supplies. The solution promoted by the water-exploitation industry is to pump more groundwater and build more reservoirs and canals, but these strategies only exacerbate our economic, environmental and water quality problems. As the current drought confirms, water remains a limited resource in California. Nothing we can do will significantly increase the amount of snowpack that constitutes our main source of developed water. We cannot build our way out of this crisis; but reasonable water management based on greater efficiency of use is a solution.

We can meet our needs — for our economy, for urban ratepayers, for environmentally sound farming, for fisheries and wildlife — by using water much more efficiently than we do at present. To meet this goal, the California Water Impact Network proposes a set of Principles for a Sustainable Water Future in California. These principles outline a comprehensive, integrated, and sustainable water policy for the State.

The Solutions exist

Despite the looming crisis in water, we have enough to live on, but not enough to waste. And waste it we have, with great enthusiasm for lush green lawns in a desert and a penchant for backroom deals with agribusiness. These deals end up as sweetheart ones for the moneyed corporate farmers, providing them with a bountiful private water supply, which they sell off at a profit, while the rest of us are carefully metered and potentially rationed.

The solution is common-sense management of our water supply in a manner that protects public health and the environment while sustaining business and agriculture.

How? The state Water Resources Control Board already has the authority — legal and regulatory — to manage the state's water resources. But it hasn't been doing so. For example, it has issued from five to seven times the amount of water rights than there is available water. It is also responsible for water rights and quality in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, yet 10 sewage treatment plants in the delta area discharge treated wastewater that contains large amounts of pollutants into the water supply.

The board should be depoliticized and sufficiently funded so that it can do its duty effectively. It should create a sustainable water plan that has teeth, with bipartisan support from the governor and the Legislature. This is how to make this happen:

  1. Create an independent structure for water rights: a water court comprising three appointed administrative law judges who specialize in water rights to handle those disputes before the board. Their decision-making must be consistent with applicable law, but there should be a mandate that they allocate water according to the actual availability of supply in the state. They also should review past water-rights decisions to bring them in line with existing supplies.
  2. The board should develop a sustainable water plan with accountability. Enforcement mechanisms would include financial penalties and operating restrictions for wayward agencies. There also should be an independent and public biennial assessment of the plan's implementation.
  3. The sustainable water plan should include an allocation of water rights based on available supply; a ban on discharging wastewater into our drinking water supplies unless it meets Title 22 public health standards for water recycling (similar to drinking water standards); meter every water use, including agriculture, not just those of urban dwellers; mandate use of recycled water throughout the state; mandate low-impact development for all projects, including transportation, in order to capture storm water on-site to replenish local groundwater aquifers; and fast-track a groundwater cleanup program.
  4. Develop a steady revenue stream to support the water-rights court and the board. The funding must not be dependent on the general fund budget. There are a number of fees that support the board, but they are not enough. Additional funds should come from water supply agencies based on their water usage.
  5. Do not approve a deal for a new water bond until these changes have been put in place. Although past bonds have done some good, they haven't helped us face the increasing water scarcity caused by climate change and increasing population.

The time for consensus and compromise has long passed. Change doesn't come easily, but without it, the environment will continue to degrade along with our quality of life. Don't allow our water future to be decided by special interests. Anne Frank said, "How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world." Let's start now.

— From the writings of C-WIN co-founder Dorothy Green


Dorothy Green helped direct the fight to stop the Peripheral Canal in 1982. She is Founding President of Heal the Bay and President Emeritus of the Los Angeles and San Gabriel Rivers Watershed Council. She served as a Los Angeles Department of Water and Power Commissioner for three and a half years, and chaired the most important water policy conference in the state, the POWER Conference. She joined the C-WIN Board in 2002, and drafted C-WIN’s sustainability principles. She passed away October 13, 2008.