My guess is that it would take two more dry years for California to get serious about revising the water rights system. (Especially with the possibility of getting a water rights reform initiative on the presidential ballot in November 2016.) I think people get serious about drought in year six. In year four, apparently, we tentatively bring up the topic.
Speaking at the Western Governors’ Association Drought Forum in Incline Village, Nev., earlier this week, the California’s top natural resources official said that Gov. Jerry Brown (D) has publicly suggested that the system of water rights might need to be re-evaluated if the drought continues. Notably, Natural Resources Secretary John Laird said, there wasn’t a major political backlash when the governor made those comments.
“For the first time the public is sort of like, ‘This is not making sense — rice farmers are flooding because they have the most senior water rights, and we’ve got cities on the cusp of running out of water – we need to look at this,'” Laird said.
“I still think it’s thermonuclear, but for the first time it’s been moved to the table,” he said.
So far I’ve only seen mentions of the concept. I haven’t seen anyone but me put forth an actual proposal. People say vague shit like “you know, what Australia did.” But here I am with this blog and no sense. My recent insight was that water rights reform should be part of a package so big that water rights reform is the least of the boldness. I call this package “California’s Resilient Agriculture” initiative.
California’s Resilient Agriculture:
Water rights reform, such that
- every person in the state gets a headright of 40gppd administered by cities or urban district, and maybe cities can buy additional water from the state for their other uses;
- we’ve got some nice instream flows; and
- six million acres of land are kept in agriculture. The acres that should be kept in farming get a farming right of 3.5acrefeet/acre (that reverts if that land isn’t farmed that year, but returns if the land is put back into ag production). Give four million acres top priority; those get water even in dry years. Another million acres gets medium priority; those get farmed in normal years. The last million acres gets farmed in wet years. Have residency requirements for the agricultural water rights. If the land gets converted to urban use, it loses the farming water right.
A marijuana-growing licensing program modeled on the tobacco growing program that supported small eastern farms.
Converting hundreds of thousands of acres of retired ag lands to solar power production.
Converting hundreds of thousands of acres of retired ag lands to state parks or groundwater recharge basins.
Putting a couple new Cal State colleges at high speed rail stops.
Giving everyone who lived through this drought in a farming zip code free scholarships to one of the California public universities, or their descendants for the next twenty-five years.
Giving lots more support to the California ag extension program. Way bigger.
Supporting the nascent agricultural technology center developing in Fresno.
Creating supports for people entering ag (tax credits for farmers who mentor new ag entrants, special mortgages for farms owned by new farmers, and maybe a few years of financial support for new farmers).
Probably something nice for the mountain counties, because boy do they object when the headwaters are neglected.
If water rights reform is only a take-away, it might still pass on the strength of urban votes. Urban users aren’t going to put up with short showers indefinitely when there is water out there. But the interior valleys have been neglected for decades and have a strong moral claim to basically as much money as we can throw at them. I am serious about having (much smaller) resilient agriculture and food security for Californians. If resilient agriculture were the goal, the outlines of reform and bundling start to become clear.