A New Way to Look at Drought

California Has Never Identified Senior and Junior Water Right Amounts

The state water project aqueduct near Los Banos | Credit: courtesy

It shouldn’t be a surprise that Montecito will have this year’s State Water Project deliveries cut by 95 percent. The Department of Water Resources is reducing all contractors to 5 percent of expected water deliveries because of the drought.

That means that instead of 3,000 acre-feet of water, the annual amount that Montecito was promised by its state water contract, delivery will be reduced to 150-acre feet. This means that Montecito Water District customers will pay over $38,000 per acre foot for this year’s 150-acre feet allotment. That is $5.8 million dollars the district has to squeeze out of its customers and fork over to the state in this water year.

What is going on? In 1991 Montecito voted to join the State Water Project (SWP) hoping to receive extra water when needed. To do so, voters approved a huge bond measure to construct the necessary pipeline to the Central Valley aqueduct that brings SWP water south from the San Francisco Bay-Delta. That infrastructure cost continues to be paid and will not end until 2038, and the costs continue whether or not we get the water we want and can use. The SWP has never been able to deliver the full amount of water Montecito was promised.

Why can’t the state do a better job of managing water resources? To begin, the state has never quantified how much water it is managing in the Delta watershed, the source of all water going south in the pipelines. And, the state has no idea how much of that water can be claimed by senior water rights holders. Since the SWP is a junior water rights holder by law, claims by Northern California landowners, agencies, and farmers will always come first. So, no wonder the state has a water predicament. It is impossible to reasonably manage a natural resource like water if you don’t know how much you have to measure. The California Water Impact Network (C-WIN) and UC Davis have each researched and quantified both the available water in the Delta watershed and who has made bona fide claims for it. Both studies concluded there are 5 1/2 times more claims in an average water year than there is actual water … and the SWP is at the end of that line as a junior water rights claimant.

To make matters worse, the state continues to throw our money at structural fixes that can’t provide any new water because there isn’t any new water. Billions have been spent on plans for tunnels (now one tunnel) to divert more water from the Sacramento River. Meanwhile, the largest ecosystem of the west coast is crashing because water already being diverted is not sustaining the fish and environment of the San Francisco Bay-Delta. Agencies that are meant to protect the people and the environment are captured by political special interests with the predictable results…rules are bent and the short-term greed of a few comes before the long-term protection and benefit of the many.

But there is a solution. The Public Trust Doctrine, codified in the U.S. and California constitutions, says that water and a healthy environment belong to us all and that it is the state that has the fiduciary responsibility to protect these resources in trust for everyone. An adjudication of the 26 rivers feeding the Delta will determine how much water is truly available. This process is expensive, but the result will cost less than the billions the state is planning on spending for future infrastructure that doesn’t fix the problem. The state is failing … and needs to be held accountable. C-WIN is reaching out to educate the public about our water resources and what needs to be done. We all have a responsibility to solve these problems.


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