During A Drought, Senior Water-Rights Holders Have Privileges

Amid California's drought, some big farmers and corporations have unrestricted water because of special deals. David Greene talks to Jay Lund, a water resources professor at UC Davis.

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

The drought in California has gotten so bad that wells are at their lowest levels in a century. And the supply from reservoirs and rivers has been reduced to just a trickle. Yet amid this crisis, the Associated Press has reported that some big farmers and corporations have been getting their water unrestricted because of special deals signed long ago when the supply was more plentiful. Jay Lund is a water resources professor at the University of California-Davis. We asked him to put this drought in perspective and to help make sense of those water deals.

JAY LUND: This is about the third driest year of record in California - with over 100 years of record. But it's at a time when we have our largest economy and more people than we've ever had in the state. And our environmental expectations are higher than we've ever had in the past.

GREENE: And take me to a farm, or a place where you can really paint a picture for me of how people are struggling with these shortages.

LUND: Well, it varies quite a lot in different parts of the state. Every place is quite dry, but some places are really dry, in the sense that there have been very large cutbacks to agriculture in some areas. In some places, they have received zero allocations of surface water from big state water projects and federal projects that they would normally have gotten water from.

GREENE: OK, so allocating water has always sort of been a reality in California because it's a dry state. And there's a hierarchy, right? I mean, some communities were able to sign deals years ago that established that they were sort of senior water rights holders? Explain that to me.

LUND: Well, that's right. It's sort of like the rest of the world as well, where if your family got in there and they bought land generations ago, they got it at a much cheaper price than you could buy it today. So, we have what's largely a system of seniority and water rights, where, if that use of water was established decades or a century ago, it has a higher priority than someone that comes in today.

GREENE: Explain it to me. What a senior water rights water holder might be able to get at this point that someone who came into, you know, the state later on and establish themselves might not be getting?

LUND: If you're a senior water right holder, you're the last to be shorted. So, all the junior water right holders that are junior to you will lose all of their water before you lose a drop.

GREENE: And this is because the state is cutting off some of the supplies through aquifers in this time of shortage?

LUND: Well, we cut off on the surface water supply. One of the really interesting and difficult parts, I think, of California water for the long-term, is that we have very little regulation of groundwater. In most of the state. So that, what the groundwater has become, is become the water source of last resort. So, if your surface water is shorted while you go out back and turn on the pumps.

GREENE: You know, this system in California - this hierarchy, having senior water rights holders. It sounds so bizarre to an outsider who's not that familiar with California. Does that create sort of a strange dynamic, where you have, you know, resentments, turf battles over water?

LUND: Well, have you ever gone to a crowded restaurant?

GREENE: (Laughing) I have.

LUND: The seats there are allocated by the same kind of a system. If you get there first, you get a seat. If you get there too late, there's no more space.

GREENE: But I guess one of the criticisms I've heard, is that some of these deals were signed in times when there was plentiful water. I mean, is there a case to be made that these deals shouldn't matter as much in a time of real shortage?

LUND: Well, these are considered to be property rights. And if you were to try to upset that, then it makes it very insecure for people to make investments. So, I think the challenge to us is how do we take this water rights system and make it flexible enough to transition into a much more modern era of agriculture and of water management.

GREENE: Professor Lund thanks so much for coming on the program. We appreciate it.

LUND: Thank you very much. Enjoyed it.

GREENE: This is NPR News.

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