In mid-July 2015, the California Water Resources Control Board issued a cease and desist order against the West Side Irrigation District of the state’s Central Valley, directing its farmers to stop pumping water from a branch of the San Joaquin River. While this may seem like business as usual in the fourth year of California’s drought, it is actually part of a larger struggle between California and the owners of senior water rights.
Prior to 1914, California granted senior water rights for certain tracts of land and purchasers reportedly paid higher prices for that land because their senior water rights were valuable and ironclad. More than a century later, during the worst drought in California’s history, the state is asserting its authority over consumption even in the case of senior water rights. The owners of those rights are challenging that state authority in court.
California apparently handles water differently than do other western states, which use pervasive meters and remote sensors to monitor water consumption and/or haven’t granted special water rights. On the other hand, California allowed senior water rights and now has limited equipment and only 23 inspectors to enforce compliance with its water consumption regulations.
Owners of senior water rights have fought several attempts to rewrite the rules over the years and now contend that the state’s curtailment of their water consumption illegally interferes with rights conferred before the government’s involvement and severely impacts their land’s value.
However, Stanford Law School water rights expert Buzz Thompson strongly believes that California will win the water war, as courts have continually acknowledged the state’s authority to prevent wasteful water consumption.
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