CIRS Blog about Rural California

2014: The Water Year that Changed California

  • Font size: Larger Smaller
  • Subscribe to this entry
  • Print

The rainy season has finally arrived to California, and 2014 will end with one of the wettest months on record. Many of California’s streams are flowing again, snowpack is building, and some of the state’s most severely depleted reservoirs have recovered modestly during recent weeks. However, California is still in drought, and needs a lot more rain in order for this historic dry spell to be declared over—somewhere around 11 trillion gallons according to NASA.


Water is (and always has been) a highly contentious issue in California; one that politicians have struggled to deal with in a way that appropriately balances the needs of urban and rural communities, industry, agriculture, wildlife and the environment. Thanks in large part to the multi-year drought, which intensified throughout 2014, some of California’s toughest water issues will be addressed at long last. State lawmakers and regulators stepped up to the plate by enacting a series of historic reforms including unprecedented (but still modest) fines for wasting water, drought relief packages, and increased enforcement of existing regulations.



Two major water laws passed in 2014. First, state legislators approved three related bills that create California’s first-ever statewide framework for groundwater protection and management—The Sustainable Groundwater Management Act of 2014—which will allow the state to more effectively address California’s longstanding and interrelated problems of groundwater overdraft, aquifer contamination, and land subsidence.

This new law directs the California Department of Water Resources to update and publish a list of priority groundwater basins next year, based on existing data and measured impacts to local wildlife habitat and streamflows.


Second, voters approved a $7.5 billion “Water Bond,”a.k.a. Proposition 1, which will provide a funding mechanism for a range of important water projects during the years to come. The 2014 water bond was significantly less expensive than previous proposals in 2010 and 2012, both of which were removed from the ballot. Exactly how the state will spend all of this money remains to be seen; water advocates and experts are currently debating options for enhancing California’s systems for storing water, whether through increased surface water storage (i.e. dams and reservoirs) or through newer and arguably more sustainable methods like groundwater infiltration and recharge programs.



CASGEM BasinPrioritization




The severe drought that continued through 2014 highlighted stark inequities in Californians’ access to water. Several communities that are reliant on groundwater found that their wells had gone dry, leaving families with no choice but to haul water from elsewhere for drinking, washing, and cooking. In areas where farmers suffered reduced water allocations (or no water allocations), farmworkers suffered job and income losses, further exacerbating health problems and economic inequity in rural areas. Over-pumping of groundwater by farmers and other irrigators is a part of the problem, as is the historical over-allocation of water rights.


California’s water rights system is among the most complicated and controversial in the U.S. Some “senior” water rights, issued prior to 1914, allow for basically unlimited water withdrawals and diversions, and require very little monitoring or reporting to state authorities. Miners, ranchers, and other land barons claimed and seized water rights during the waves of settlement that occurred in the late 1800s and early 1900s, often by simply staking a claim at the source.


Nonetheless, these rights remain in place even as properties change owners, and senior rights are held as superior to all other water rights in California. Even during droughts, senior water rights holders can generally continue diverting and using water at will, while “junior” water rights holders regularly have some or all of their allocated water taken away. The century-old system of “haves and have nots” has resulted in an unfair and inefficient system for managing water.


The reality of California’s exclusionary, antiquated, and unjust water rights system is the elephant in the room in many official discussions about the future of California’s water. The Associated Press broke a story last summer that revealed that because of senior water rights, the state doesn’t even know how much water is being used, or by whom. California has not verified all of the water rights that have been issued over the years as other states have done, perhaps because doing so would require state officials to address the fact that there are already over five times more water rights than there is available water.


As such, a new and improved way of allocating water will be needed in the future, especially if voluntary measures to reduce water consumption continue to fail to make any meaningful difference. Water rights reform is politically untenable due in large part to the powerful industries, corporations, and other institutions that have a large financial stake in maintaining the status quo. However, a prolonged drought (like the ones that have happened in California’s ancient past) could compel action.


Water rights reform or no, 2015 promises to be another important year for California water, as groundwater reform goes into effect, the Bay Delta Plan continues to evolve, and as projects move forward with funding that was approved by voters in November. 

in Water Hits: 1968 0 Comments

Annie Beaman is an independent consultant working on water issues and sustainable agriculture in California. In addition to researching, writing, strategizing, and campaigning about issues that impact vulnerable ecosystems and communities, she is an avid gardener and baker. Annie is a stewardship-obsessed member of a multi-generational farming family, and a longtime advocate for environmental protection and social justice. Follow her on Twitter @anniebeaman.


Sign Up for our E-newsletter