State Doesn’t Track Big Water Users and Those with “Senior” Preferential Rights

Friday, May 30, 2014

Water use by California residential customers is closely monitored, with new technology allowing for ever-increasing scrutiny that is reflected in regular hectoring by providers that questions everything from bathing habits to lawn care.

But 4,000 corporate and agricultural holders of “senior rights” to more than half the water from the state’s rivers and streams have virtually no controls on them, according to data collected by the Associated Press. San Francisco and Los Angeles water departments are some of the biggest rights holders.

Just 24 of these rights holders use more than double the water collected via California’s network of state and federal dams and shipped throughout the state to other users, according to the news service.

AP went to the trouble of collecting data on where trillions of gallons of water go because the state does not, at least not very accurately or efficiently.

The State Water Resources Control Board relies on self-reporting by rural water districts and government agencies that AP found suspiciously unconvincing. The state requires the reports every three years and on a rotating basis, so it never has an up-to-date tally of water usage.

The result, not surprisingly, is some ridiculous reporting by rights holders that goes unchallenged by the state. In one instance, the Hearst Corporation’s private estate Wyntoon, home of the fabled Hearst Castle, has senior water rights dating back to 1920. According to state records, the estate used 1.8 million acre-feet of water on its 67,000-acre spread in 2010, while 1,500 residents in the nearby town of Montague are just about bone dry.

That would be horrible, if true. But a spokesman for Hearst told AP that the actual use number was only 448 acre-feet, allowing a choice between alternate horrible realities of inequity and incompetence.    

Many of these senior rights holders have agreements for first dibs on water that go back more than 100 years. They were exempt from state water cutbacks of 95% to farmers and municipalities instituted earlier this year. In times of drought, like now, the state lets some of them sell their water at market rates.

The state took a stab at getting a handle on water use in 2007 when it passed a law requiring 242 water districts (all but the tiniest) to file reports on how much water they delivered to customers. The Center for Investigative Reporting counted 48 that actually did it. The reports were required 10 months ago.

Reporters found a 2009 law that required additional precise data from the 55 largest water districts has been ignored by about half of them.

–Ken Broder


To Learn More:

California's Flawed Water System Can't Track Usage (by Jason Dearen and Garance Burke, Associated Press)

Water Rights Records Riddled with Errors (by Jason Dearen and Garance Burke, Associated Press)

Amid Drought, Laws to Track California's Biggest Water Users Ignored (by Katharine Mieszkowski, Center for Investigative Reporting)

First Time in 54 Years, State Water Project Will Deliver No Water (by Ken Broder, AllGov California)

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