Should senior water rights be sacred?

The L.A. Times raises the question.

“Thanks to seniority, powerful Central Valley irrigation districts that most Californians have never heard of are at the head of the line for vast amounts of water, even at the expense of the environment and the rest of the state,” the story says.

It goes on. “Blame for the delta’s downward spiral falls mostly on the pumping by the junior state and federal water projects that send supplies hundreds of miles south to San Joaquin Valley agribusiness and the urban Southland.”

But, “Water diverted by farms and cities upstream in the Sacramento and San Joaquin river basins and pumped from the delta itself that the average volume of flows out to San Francisco Bay is about half what it once was.”

I have long defended the Delta based on the first-come, first-served principle of water rights seniority. As would anybody whose region had those rights, including L.A. But it’s fair for Angelenos to ask whether this system is fair and rational. Especially if users upstream of the Delta are using so much water that they are harming the Delta environmentally and kicking in the biological opinions that require cutbacks to other regions.

In other words, is the seniority system good policy if, by draining the Delta, it causes, beyond a drought’s natural limits, a multiplier effect of cutbacks and economic pain to those downstream or those with junior rights?

That question ought to be debated. Though any debate has to propose an alternative. I have no idea what that might be. Most any change I can think of would cause it to rain lawyers for 20 years. 

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    Michael Fitzgerald

    Mike Fitzgerald is The Record’s award-winning metro columnist. His column runs in the paper three times a week. Born in San Francisco, he was raised in Stockton. His column covers diverse beats including, sometimes, the offbeat. Read Full
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