California's Historic Drought Pressures Traditional Water Rights
The board oversees California's intricate water-rights system, which is really an accumulation of three separate ones. It's based on seniority, so in dry periods, the claims of junior rights-holders are the first to be cut (or "curtailed.") But this drought is so severe that the board may have to curtail the rights of senior rights holders, too. And conditions on water rights—such as protections for wildlife—need to be revised, since they weren’t devised to accommodate “insanely dry” periods like this one.
Chair of the State Water Resources Control Board Felicia Marcus delved into the challenges of managing water during the drought with The Planning Report. The board does more than adjudicate rights—two of its core divisions are Water Quality and Drinking Water.
It also helps manage disputes over the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta. "It’s not just fish versus farmers—it’s farmers versus farmers," Marcus says. "We, along with the courts, are the umpires judging competing claims on water."
But Marcus has hope that the future brings local collaboration and stakeholder cooperation. She points to legislation from last year that requires local areas sharing a groundwater basin to jointly come up with a plan to maintain it. That law got the underlying philosophy about groundwater right, Marcus believes: "The goal should not be a top-down state regulatory program, but a framework for local action and success. We will do whatever it takes to help local areas take responsibility for what is, at heart, a community resource."
Overall, Marcus sees successful water policy as a result of players thinking beyond their own narrow interests:
"Breakthroughs in California water over the last few decades—whether it’s groundwater legislation, the Bay-Delta Accord I was privileged to work on in the ’90s, or the ’09 legislation I was also privileged to deal with—happened because players in different stakeholder groups looked across traditional divides... Solutions only come when people take action to connect with other people around a table, rather than standing in separate corners with their engineering, legal, or otherwise technical points of view."