Water Knife Action in California

paolo-water-knife-web-700x350The prequel for Paolo Bacigalupi‘s The Water Knife is now playing out in California’s Central Valley. California’s Water Knives have targeted the Central Valley irrigation districts supplying farmers with water for irrigating crops. The Byron Bethany and West Side Irrigation Districts are some of the first targets of the State Water Resources Control Board’s Water Rights Enforcement Program (the “Cali” Water Knives in Bacigalupi’s novel). Byron Bethany Irrigation District supplies water to about 29,000 acres of farm land and have 100-year old water rights that give them legal access to water from the local rivers/canals. They are now facing up to $5.1 million in fines from the State Water Board for using that right, which the Board has negated. The Water Boards power is based on laws passed by the California legislature that identified “reasonable use” as a limitation to water rights. According to the State’s attorneys the reasonable use of cities trumps Byron-Bethany’s rights. As you might expect, Byron-Bethany’s attorneys have a different view of what is reasonable use of the water they have had a right to use for farming for a century.

One problem is that what is considered reasonable changes through time and is determined by the Water Board and the courts. Growing food, once considered a premier reasonable use is now being replaced by the needs of California’s other water users. Farmers/irrigation districts holding senior water rights are losing their water.  Farms are shutting down production because of the lack of irrigation water. Such curtailments directly cost California agriculture $1.5 billion and 17,100 jobs in 2014, and are expected to cost another $1.8 billion and 14,500 jobs in 2015.  All together the last two years of drought will cost the total California economy nearly $6 billion. This year, water allocations to Central Valley farmers have fallen by 33% of normal use. This has resulted in nearly $1 billion in extra pumping costs, largely to pay for groundwater to replace the surface water supplies, which is rapidly depleting California’s groundwater reserves. When groundwater supplies are gone, farmers will have no leeway to deal with the Water Board’s cuts. More will go out of business.

Although the present multi-year drought has allowed/forced (depending on your view of government) the Water Board to unsheathe their Water Knives, the problem is much bigger. Water rights holders in California have rights to over 500% of the natural supplies of surface water. So, legally, they could suck out all the water from nearly all the rivers in California. Exacerbating the problem, water demand continues to grow as California’s population expands relentlessly–in 2050 there will be 60 million people in California, there are now 38 million. The California Department of Water Resources predicts that by 2050, under current trends, urban water use will increase by about 50%, while agricultural water use will decrease by about 10% (California Water Plan). The many more people in cities will have much less food produced in California to east, as will  others across the country (Farm PressUS Ag).

The Water Board will be the overlord managing these demands. They will move water from farmers to urbanites/suburbanites using the courts. Prof. Buzz Thompson of Stanford Law School predicts that California will win the fight to cut water use and develop a “new way of allocating water”, that will bypass the present water rights system.  These legal actions will take many more “Cali Water Knives” managed by the Chair of the Water Board. In the near term, those Water Knives will be “…attorneys and engineers.“, but that will change. Supplies will dwindle, demands skyrocket, and desperate water rights holders who have run out of legal options will physically fight back. Expect to see lawyers replaced by enforcement agents like Paolo Bacigalupi’s ruthless Water Knife, Angel Velasquez, and the Water Board Chair to resemble the authoritarian Catherine Case. To visit that dystopian water future all you have to do now is read “The Water Knife”. You will not have to buy the prequel, because you are living it–just read the news.


More Info:

Link to news articles:  WSJ article;  Bloomberg articleNY Time article; U.S. News.

Brian Gray’s essay on California’s “reasonable use” doctrine.


About climanova

I am an Emeritus Professor of Geoscience at the University of Montana, Missoula and and Independent Scientist-Consultant. My posts will examine the physical processes forming the foundation for life on Earth and examine the role humans play in modifying those processes.
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