How Much Water Is There to Share?

It's Time for State Officials to Decide

How can state officials manage what they have never measured? They can’t! This basic fact is the driving force in California’s current water crisis … you can’t manage what you don’t know and the only way to know when it comes to water is to measure it.

We’re talking here about the Delta watershed, which supplies the water for both the state and federal water systems that send water south to the San Joaquin Valley and Southern California. Two studies have been done to measure this water supply: the California Water Impact Network and the UC Davis independent studies. Both concluded that consumptive water rights claims are at least five times more than what is normally supplied. And it’s much worse, of course, in times of drought.

In plain language, this means that every drop of water has been promised at least five times over. And exacerbating this whole dilemma is climate change. This year, there was no snow pack … zero … by May. Snowpack is a major source of stored water. We cannot count on that to be there as before.

And to compound this, there is a long-standing system of what is known as “senior water rights.” This means that first in time is first in line. Most water rights claims were well established before 1914.

The two huge projects built by the federal government (the Central Valley Project, or CVP) and the state (the State Water Project, or SWP) didn’t establish their water rights claims until 1928. They are among the most junior water rights claimants in our current system.

This fact, that the CVP and the SWP are among the most junior claimants in a very oversubscribed system, appears to be what is driving the official refusal to quantify the water that is really in the system. It is the classic example of “the emperor has no clothes!”

All of the talk about new dams, twin tunnels, and other structural storage and conveyance systems is ridiculous until we know how much water we are actually dealing with. This is very old thinking … that money, concrete, and steel will solve the problem. They won’t because they can’t. All the money, concrete, and fancy plans will not produce one more drop of water.

So what do solutions look like? The hard truth is that until the State Water Resources Control Board, the agency with the fiduciary responsibility to grant and revoke all water rights permits in California, officially quantifies the water in the Delta watershed (the Sacramento, San Joaquin, and Trinity rivers and all of their tributaries), we can’t even begin.

So, State Board, measure what you have been tasked to manage. Then do a surface water adjudication of what you have measured to determine who has a right to what is really there.

This is about following the law and good old common sense.

Carolee Krieger is executive director of the California Water Impact Network,


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