More than half a dozen independent experts interviewed for this article proposed similar fixes for California’s water rights system. They all started with the same premise: Lawmakers can’t dump the current system and start from scratch, for reasons both practical and political.
“We’re not going to throw water rights out. We’re going to fiddle around the margins,” said Peter Gleick, president of the Pacific Institute, an Oakland-based think tank.
Opposition to water rights reform is going to stay constant until a new system is proposed, and then winners under the new system can start advocating for it. For example, I have proposed a system in which five million acres of agriculture get better water rights than they have now, and cities’ water rights change with their populations, so they don’t need to fear future population increases. If that reform were seriously on the table, it would garner the support of more than half of agricultural interests (the Friant, in the Sacramento Valley, the coastal farmers, some of the Delta) and all cities. “Fiddl[ing] around the margins” will only ever draw opposition, because fiddling around the margins will over ever be taking away (some aspects of some) rights from some people. We aren’t going to fiddle around the margins to make our existing water rights stronger for some. The vague concept of water rights reform will get opposition from all potential losers; clear and concrete proposals for water rights reforms will get support from the new winners and opposition from the much smaller group of actual losers.
Assemblymember Perea says:
Lawmakers should also look for new opportunities to store water in dams and groundwater reservoirs, Perea said.
“Once we look at those conversations, then, if we need to, we can talk about water rights,” he said. “Once you start talking about changing water rights, you’re really talking about a generational shift. That is such a monumental task — and it’s so critical that we get it right — that I think we should start from an understanding of where we are today before we go making such dramatic changes.”
Eh. We don’t have to get water rights reform exactly right. But it should have a good process for modification built into it. Suppose we’ve underestimated the effects of climate change? Suppose we want to grow more food? A new water rights system will need adjusting by 2060 or so.
Prof Hanemann says:
UC Berkeley’s Hanemann thinks lawmakers will eventually take up water rights reform. While it might not happen during the current drought, he said, California is likely to confront an even worse drought soon enough, thanks to climate change.
Year Six. I make my predictions up front and I’m saying Year Six. If we are still in drought for two more years, I bet the new administration takes it up. If we get a couple wet years, it’ll start the count over. But people won’t believe until Year Six.
Next I’ll be reading this. It looks like a real proposal, which is wonderful. It is a real proposal to be more like Australia and I still don’t understand why that is the goal, but before having read it, it looks to have more content than any other proposition for water rights reform that I’ve seen. (If you see others, please send them along.)