PD Editorial: California should buy some water rights

Editorials represent the views of The Press Democrat editorial board and The Press Democrat as an institution. The editorial board and the newsroom operate separately and independently of one another.

If Californians want to ensure that there is water available for endangered salmon and other wildlife, then Californians ought to pay for that water. That’s exactly what some lawmakers want to do.

The yearslong drought is upending how Californians live and think about the environment around them. Water restrictions on residents can only go so far. Mandatory limits on watering lawns or suggested — and mostly ignored — cutbacks by the governor won’t save enough.

There are more than 9 million irrigated acres of farmland accounting for more than three-quarters of all water used by businesses and homes. To achieve real water savings, agriculture must be part of the plan. Looking ahead, it’s likely that hundreds of thousands of acres will have to come out of production to ensure groundwater sustainability in the Central Valley, where farmers have been pumping so fast that the earth is sinking.

The problem is that agricultural uses tend to have some of the most-senior water rights in the state. That means they get their water before anyone else.

The water rights system is a complex amalgam of federal and state laws and policies. The state can’t easily step in and demand that a farmer give up his or her water to protect river flows for fish.

A farmer or rancher with senior rights can, however, voluntarily sell them. Some Democrats in the state Senate therefore have proposed spending $1.5 billion to buy water rights from any willing sellers.

Global market conditions combined with the fact that children of farmers often aren’t interested in taking over the family farm mean a lot of farmers are ready to sell. The proposed $1.5 billion would buy about 200,000 acre feet of water at current rates. That won’t solve the water challenges, but it would help.

Sen. Bob Wieckowski, D-Fremont, likens the idea to a company buying back stock.

Initially the plan is to keep the water in rivers and wetlands for endangered salmon, fish, birds and other wildlife. Improved salmon habitat is particularly important for the North Coast, where commercial and recreational fisheries rely on river flows.

Voluntary sales are amicable. When the state tries to dictate how water is used, especially if it’s for endangered species, things often get testy. Expensive, time-consuming lawsuits occur with no guaranteed outcome. Buying water rights avoids all that trouble and time. If the state starts buying them soon, it could improve habitat now, not years out after a court rules.

Having those water rights in the state’s back pocket also could pay dividends in the future. If the drought continues to worsen, fish might have to give way to water for critical human consumption. The state would be able to respond flexibly to the situation if it already has access to the water.

California’s $100 billion budget surplus makes this affordable. There’s a lot of competition for the money, but a test water right purchasing program to demonstrate that a market-based approach to reprioritizing how California uses its water is a worthwhile expense. It’s also a capital investment that purchases something tangible, unlike other ideas for the surplus that would create new programs without a plan for how to fund them in leaner times.

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Editorials represent the views of The Press Democrat editorial board and The Press Democrat as an institution. The editorial board and the newsroom operate separately and independently of one another.

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