California water rights is a complex hierarchy that governs who gets water during a drought and who doesn’t. It is based on seniority, and in dry years, when there is not enough water in the system to serve all water rights holders, those with more junior rights are required to cut back. The senior rights have been in place since the Gold Rush era and later on in 1914, they were tweaked a bit. The priority system is based on the concept of “first in time, first in right.” People who got in early have senior rights. Everyone who made claims later has secondary or “junior” rights – and they only get water once the senior rights holders get the water they’ve claimed.
The system has worked well in the past. However, with California’s population growing steadily, and state water supplies shrinking due to effects of climate change, that system has become antiquated, debilitated and unresponsive to our century’s demands. For the longest time, rights created before 1914 were off-limits to many state regulations. Until now. With drought conditions continuing into the summer months, the State Water Resources Control Board extended curtailments into senior rights dating back to 1858. Not only will the junior right holders be affected, but so will the ones that have been untouchable for centuries. The water rights affected by the notice adds to the growing number of water rights being limited due to the State’s ongoing drought, and relates to all other water restrictions being applied to home and business owners alike.
The west is experiencing extreme conditions, and with that comes the need to change. It’s time for California to adjust – if that means altering traditional policies, so be it! Let’s revise how we grant rights, how we extract and divert, and furthermore, how we deliberately use our precious supply of water. In the end it will make a world of a difference.