Are senior water rights unfair?

The Chron ran a story on Friday headlined …

Growers group awash in water while neighbors’ crops die

Ovbiously, inequity is a theme of this story about California’s water rights system.

One could certainly make the case that California’s seniority system of water rights lacks equity. Welcome to California. Spanish land grants set the pattern for rich, landed haves and poor have-nots. The bizarre court ruling that corporations are people stacked the deck against populists. Moneyed Coastal California drives the legislature’s agenda, sometimes to the detriment of the interior. Whites long red-lined minorities and they’re poorer today because of it.

The Chron calls California’s system “quirky.” First-come, first-serve, quirky? A newcomer basing a new farm business on water that is not there should not expect water rights equal to a farmer’s whose grandfather first drained Delta land.

I don’t want to sound complacent in defense of the status quo. Maybe there’s a better system (though the Chron was unable to find one). For one thing, lawmakers may want to impose conservation measures on senior water rights holders during droughts; arguably their rights could fairly be temporarily modified in extreme circumstances.

But the idea that the seniority system is unfair is a relic of the days demand drove water policy. If there are haves and have-nots in California’s water rights system, perhaps that is because finite supply is becoming the policy driver, as it should, because the state is hitting its limits. 

The drought is unfair. The law and engineering can only soften this natural state. Neither can remedy it.

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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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