Surface water diversions, record droughts and increases in groundwater pumping have left many California streams and rivers completely dry, or with water levels that are inadequate to sustain fish, wildlife and recreation. In many stream systems the state has caused a huge problem by over-appropriating water rights to land owners and created “paper rights to water,” meaning rights to use water that simply doesn’t exist.
Right now billions of dollars are on the table while the State of California undergoes a process to allocate funding for water conservation projects. How these dollars are spent could determine the future for our rivers, streams and fish.
Streams and rivers that aren’t over-appropriated are often de-watered by illegal diversions. At the same time, unregulated groundwater extraction has caused water from many rivers and streams to literally sink underground to fill depleted aquifers. California law does not require groundwater well owners to report the quantity of water they pump. This makes it difficult, if not impossible, for regulators to curb groundwater extraction as necessary to protect instream flows.
Unfortunately, water conserved with public money is rarely dedicated to meet instream flow needs even when the stated purpose of conservation projects is to restore them. As a result, conserved water is often used by the very property owners who undertake conservation projects, or by downstream property owners with previously unsatisfied “paper” water rights. Over time, as more of the “low hanging fruit” of water conservation projects are implemented, it becomes increasingly expensive to conserve additional units of water.
As long as conserved water is soaked up by paper water rights, water conservation spending will do more harm than good. This problem could be solved by requiring that water conserved with public funds be permanently dedicated instream via California Water Code Section 1707.
State and federal funds are also allocated specifically to purchase water for rivers and streams, or to temporarily transfer water rights instream. Short-term transactions may be necessary to address urgent environmental problems, but they do not address the fact that water has been over allocated. Short-term transactions also require an ongoing infusion of funding to keep water in our rivers and streams. Public agencies tend to favor temporary transactions because permanent water right “retirement” is controversial.