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PD Editorial: Taking stock of California’s water

For more than a century, policymakers have tip-toed around a seminal question about California’s water supplies: How many straws are in the cup?

The answer is astonishing.

On average, according to a new report by UC researchers, allocations of surface water are five times greater than average annual runoff. In other words, every drop is spoken for - five times over. In the major river basins, rights allocations are as much as 11 times greater than natural surface water supplies. The numbers are only a little better for the Russian River, where rights have been granted for 113 percent of average annual flows.

In practice, this means most rights holders have to settle for less, even in a normal year.

Only a privileged few with rights pre-dating a 1914 state water law, mostly irrigation districts in the Sacramento and San Joaquin valleys, get their full allocation even in most dry years.

A drought, especially a prolonged drought such as the one now in its third year, magnifies the gulf between actual and allocated supplies and junior and senior rights holders. With climate models projecting warmer and more arid conditions, the differences are likely to become more evident, and political battles over water supplies will intensify.

Managing surface water is only part of the equation.

In a typical year, about a third of the water used in California is pumped from wells, and the volume increases to as much as 60 percent in dry years.

Irrigation districts and individual well owners in some parts of the state are auctioning water for exorbitant amounts of money, according to recent news accounts.

Surface water regulation may be lax, but groundwater isn’t regulated at all.

California is the only western state without groundwater regulation, and over-pumping has caused the land to sink more than 25 feet in some parts of the Central Valley.

State legislators are trying to complete work on a bill directing local agencies to assess, manage and protect groundwater resources. That’s a long-overdue step toward ensuring reliable, long-term water supplies, but legislators allied with agricultural interests in the Central Valley have offered a last-minute alternative that would undermine the effort by limiting requirements for groundwater plans and creating a drought exemption from responsible management rules.

California’s biggest water users aren’t Southern California homeowners or the Indian tribes and environmental groups litigating for more water in North Coast salmon streams. The biggest users are farmers, especially in the Central Valley, who use 85 percent of the state’s water. They also stand to be among the biggest beneficiaries of Proposition 1, a $7.5 billion bond on the Nov. 4 ballot. A large chunk of the money is earmarked for reservoirs and dams that will supply irrigation water for growers.

Urban and suburban voters have become accustomed to water conservation measures, even before the latest drought, and they are more likely to be persuaded if these big users accept conservation measures of their own, including a groundwater management law.

In their report on water rights, UC researchers Theordore E. Grantham and Joshua Viers noted that a groundwater management system, coupled with accurate monitoring of surface water rights - another ongoing political battle - are needed for the state to adapt its water delivery system for 21st century conditions. For now, we’re stuck with a 19th century framework that promises far more than it can deliver.

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