It has been almost 40 years since senior water rights holders in California have been forced to cut their water use. Now, with the State Water Resources Board poised to restrict their water use, a group of farmers have volunteered to give up a quarter of the water available to them this year. In exchange, the State has promised to not restrict the remaining 75 percent of their water rights, even if the drought deepens.
In an interview with Jennifer Medina of The New York Times, Jonas Minton, a former Deputy Director of the California Department of Water Resources, praised the deal calling it “symbolic and potentially precedent setting.”
“California’s water rights system does not work well with this little water,” Minton says in the interview. “The question is really whether other elements of agriculture, in particular the large corporate farms, will follow suit. If agriculture as a whole came anywhere close to matching the kinds of urban cuts that we have implemented, we would have sufficient water for this year and next.”
The history of California’s water rights structure dates to the Gold Rush era. During this period, prospectors made their claims to water supplies by posting notices on trees adjacent to the waterways. Claims by individuals prior to 1914, have been designated as senior water rights and are traditionally off-limits to many state regulations and water management restrictions. Senior water rights are the last rights cut during a major drought, regardless of the impact these claim holders have on overall water supply. Junior rights holders, those who obtained water entitlements after 1914, face greater state regulations and are among the first to have their water rights scaled back.
Today, many of the original claims to water in California remain active, providing virtual free reign over available water supplies. Critics such Chris Nichols, a reporter for the San Diego Union-Tribune, has called the rights structure “antiquated and byzantine in nature.” He goes on to state that the current system is “creating an arbitrary set of winners and losers among farms, cities, and the environment, while compromising the state’s ability to deliver future water supplies in a fair and effective manner.”
Richard Frank, the Director of the California Environmental Law & Policy Center at UC Davis, writes:, “In an era of relatively few people and limited statewide water demand, California’s water rights system worked reasonably well. Now, 100 years later, with the same legal rules intact, California’s population growing steadily, and state water supplies shrinking due to the effects of climate change, that system has become antiquated, dysfunctional, and unresponsive to 21st century conditions.”
California’s drought, now entering its fourth year, has demonstrated the need to fix the deficiencies in the legal system that allocates dwindling water supplies. The new deal between the State Water Resources Board and the senior water rights holders has drawn significant criticism. Ultimately, many think this can only be a temporary solution as it upholds the same basic structure of the historic water rights system that puts private interests over public benefit.
 Geiling, Climate Progress, “Farmers Agree to Water Cuts to Help California Deal with Drought”. http://thinkprogress.org/climate/2015/05/26/3662629/california-farmers-voluntary-cuts/.
 Medina, The New York Times, “Farmers Agree to Water Cuts in California”. http://www.nytimes.com/2015/05/23/us/some-california-farmers-to-cut-water-use-to-ease-drought.html.
 Medina, “Farmers Agree to Water Cuts in California”. http://www.nytimes.com/2015/05/23/us/some-california-farmers-to-cut-water-use-to-ease-drought.html.
 Nichols, San Diego Union-Tribune, “CA Still Tied to Gold Rush-Era Water Rights System”. http://www.utsandiego.com/news/2015/apr/25/sacramento-drought-california-water-right-system/.
 Frank, San Francisco Chrinicle, “Another Inconvenient Truth: California Water Law Must Change”. http://www.sfchronicle.com/opinion/article/Another-inconvenient-truth-California-water-law-6192703.php.