Redistribute California's Water? Not Without A Fight : The Salt What's a fair way to divide up California's scarce water? The current system relies heavily on history: Some farmers will get water, others won't, based simply on when their land was first irrigated.

Redistribute California's Water? Not Without A Fight

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Here in California, the big question is how to fairly divide up the state's precious and increasingly scarce water supply. There's a lot at stake for Californians and at stake across the country, meaning your supply of food. That's because most of California's water goes to farms. Here's NPR's Dan Charles.

DAN CHARLES, BYLINE: To understand how you get your hands on lots of water in California, consider the case of Cannon Michael. He grows tomatoes and melons in California's Central Valley. And despite the drought, he'll still grow them this year.

CANNON MICHAEL: Yes, still, I mean, you know, we're thankful for being able to have whatever water that we can. We're thankful to be able to continue some employment for our folks.

CHARLES: He's getting less than half the water he'd receive in a normal year. But still, that's enough to grow crops on about 80 percent of his land. Each acre will get about half a million gallons of water. Michael gets water, and other farmers do not because of history.

MICHAEL: My great-great-great-grandfather came over from Germany in the 1850s and ended up in a partnership mainly focused on cattle.

CHARLES: That ancestor, Henry Miller, built one of the great ranching empires of the West. It owned huge chunks of land along the San Joaquin River. Henry Miller looked at that river and recognized an opportunity.

MICHAEL: He saw the value of being able to channel some of this water, finding ways to use it to grow feed and to supply communities and those types of things.

CHARLES: By irrigating his land, he got a legal right to use that amount of water on that land forever. And because Miller claimed his water before anybody else, this land, a small piece of which is now Cannon Michael's land, has what's called senior rights to water. So when California decides how to allocate water today, land like this is first in line. Gates are allowed to open on irrigation canals that run through this land and water will flow. On other farms nearby, the gates will stay shut. Leon Szeptycki, executive director of a program called Water in the West at Stanford University, says this first-come, first-served system made sense in the 19th century.

LEON SZEPTYCKI: Because we wanted people to come, settle the land, cultivate the land. And we wanted them to have secure water rights.

CHARLES: It promoted agricultural development, but Szeptycki says it is not a great system when it comes to responding to drought. When water is really scares, he says, you'd think it should go first to ensure public safety and health, then to irrigate the most valuable crops, like almond orchards. In other parts of the economy, prices do this job. When there's a critical shortage of something, whether its gasoline or gold, people bid up the price. Then people who need it less buy less of it. But there's not much of a market for irrigation water, Szeptycki says. If you're first in line for water, it's still pretty cheap.

SZEPTYCKI: And so there's no incentive to be particularly efficient with your water. You know, you're a senior water right holder, you get your water even in times of shortage, you kind of do whatever you want with it.

CHARLES: Some farmers, for instance, are still using that water to grow alfalfa, which needs a lot of water and goes to feed animals. Despite those problems, though, Szeptycki says no government officials are seriously proposing any fundamental change to the water rules because, for farmers, that would be as shocking and disruptive as reshuffling land or income. Vegetable grower Tom Teixeira says you have to understand, we've already paid huge amounts of money to make sure we could get enough water.

TOM TEIXEIRA: We've sought out and acquired land that had good water rights, paid substantially more for that ground than we would've paid for ground that had lesser water rights.

CHARLES: And if you think it would be fair to take the state's water now and divide it up some other way...

TEIXEIRA: Well, maybe we should take everybody's paycheck and say, everybody put it in a pool, and we're going to divide that up evenly. Even though you went to school as a doctor for eight or 10 years and you're making a lot more money than the guy that's driving the school bus, let's take all the money, and then let's divide it up evenly.

CHARLES: That water is our income, he says. So the basic rules governing water are not about to change, but the drought is forcing farmers to change how they use it. They're getting so little water these days, they're using it only on their most valuable crops. They're not growing so much alfalfa anymore. Some farmers are even selling their water to other farmers or even cities that need it more. These changes are happening more slowly than I'd like, says Stanford's Leon Szeptycki, but they are happening. Dan Charles, NPR News.

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