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California’s Unfair Water Rights System Might Finally Face a Major Overhaul

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California's outdated 19th-century water rights system perpetuates inequities and faces climate change challenges, experts say. (Shutterstock)
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The water rights system in California, established in the 19th century, is no longer viable given today’s societal context and climate change issues, according to an expert in climate science.

Inequities and Inadequacies Persist Despite Known Drawbacks

Despite being a system that was historically built on disenfranchisement and dispossession, it remains intact largely due to the advantages it offers to certain influential groups. Despite its widely recognized shortcomings and increasing ineffectiveness in tackling climate change issues, the system endures.

The System’s Complex Origins and Persistent Biases

Understanding the convoluted water rights system requires delving into its roots, which are entrenched in prejudice and state-sponsored violence against Native American communities. The system was originally conceived to prevent Indigenous people from having access to water, thus giving preferential treatment to white settlers.

California Water Rights

California utilizes both kinds of water rights systems found in the United States. Riparian rights, originally adapted from British common law, are mainly employed in the typically wetter eastern states. These rights are tied to owning land that is adjacent to a water source, known as a riparian area—the meeting point between land and water. Riparian landowners can only use water on their bordering property.

In contrast, appropriative rights were established by western settlers during the 19th century. Unlike riparian rights, appropriative rights don’t require ownership of land next to a water source. Instead, they permit holders to divert water from one location and “appropriate” it for beneficial use elsewhere. Up until 1914 in California, all one needed to do was post notice of their claim—called “staking”—and start using the water (like hammering a sign onto a post near a river) to secure appropriative water rights.

Both water rights systems were developed hand-in-hand with federal and state policies to favor white settlers and solidify the state and federal governments’ control over newly claimed but unceded territories. For instance, the 1862 Homestead Act enabled adult citizen heads of households to obtain land ownership by living on it and “improving” it for five years. However, Native Americans only became eligible for US citizenship in 1924 – 60 years later.

Current Allocations Lead to System Overload and Ecosystem Threats

California’s major basins have allocations that far exceed natural surface water supplies, reaching up to 1000%. This places the system in a precarious position, unprepared for growing water scarcities and the imminent risk of ecosystem collapse.

Efforts for System Modernization: A Step Forward Yet Insufficient

Despite ongoing efforts to update the water rights system, the proposed changes fall short of addressing historical injustices and present inequities. However, these proposals are of utmost importance in terms of shaping informed water management decisions and incorporating climate resilience into our future strategies.

Read more at the Union of Concerned Scientists.

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