As California enters its fourth year of record drought, conflicts arising among the state’s water users have highlighted the “arcane workings of California’s water rights system, one that rewards those who got here first and underpins agriculture’s position as the state’s dominant water user.”

Some are pushing back against what they perceive as outdated rules, set over a century ago; others are resisting change. Bettina Boxall (@boxall) covers western water issues and California’s drought for the Los Angeles Times.


California determines “most rights” to surface water on a priority system called “first in time, first in right.” Essentially, water rights are based on when “flows were first diverted and used.” The oldest claims to water (“senior rights”) predate 1914. In severe drought, those with more recent water rights (“junior rights”) are the first to have their water supplies cut. It’s been almost thirty years since water regulators “halted senior diversions.”

But the current situation has gone from bad to worse, and notices have been delivered.


“This year and last, the State Water Resources Control Board told thousands of junior rights holders in the Central Valley to stop drawing water from rivers and streams. Then on June 12, regulators reached further back, sending curtailment notices to more than 100 districts and growers with rights dating to 1903.”

Lawsuits have already been filed, and some of the arguments are novel. The situation is murky, because the state has not kept good data on water use. But the current situation has set urban against rural, farmers against regulators and even farmer against farmer. But if the drought continues, questions about “how and by whom water is used” in California will continue to grow louder and become more persistent.


“No water right is set in stone,” [Eric] Garner said. “I think that all water rights and all water users are going to be getting greater scrutiny.”

This piece provides an excellent summary of some of the legal issues surrounding California’s drought. A must read.


Related Links:

The next drought victims? Ducks, geese and rice.

Before we can address the drought, we need a geography lesson.

Photographic essay documents the impact of drought in California’s Central Valley

Q&A: UC’s Doug Parker on the California drought