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Are Policy Makers Exacerbating Drought Scares? That's What It Looks Like in California

Like much of the West, the state has serious water issues, but Mother Nature is only partly to blame.

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Robert Glennon, author of several books on water, including the recent, Unquenchable: America's Water Crisis and What We Can Do About It wrote:

We love to blame Mother Nature for every natural catastrophe, but a close look at recent droughts, in California this year and Georgia last year, shows that these droughts are not more severe than previous ones.

Why, then, is there such a crisis? Because Californians this year and Georgians last year have outgrown their states' water supplies. The margin for weathering a drought has shrunk. The rain and the drought are about the same. It's us who've changed.

Glennon goes on to write about California's unsustainable population growth ("California's population grows by one person per minute.") which, indeed is contributing to stress on water supplies. But that's not the whole story, either.

"I think it is as much true that we are mismanaging water as it that the dry conditions have created this emergency," said Mindy McIntyre, the water program manager for the Planning & Conservation League, which lobbies in Sacramento on behalf of the environment.

The problem, she contends, is water rights. "It was recently revealed that the state has over-allocated water rights by eight times the average water that we get in the state in a given year and four times the amount we've gotten in our wettest year on record, and that doesn't include necessary flows for the environment, because the environment doesn't hold water rights, and it doesn't include groundwater or illegal diverters, which there are quite a few," she said.

Essentially, the state has promised eight times more water water than it can actually give to water agencies or irrigation districts because there simply isn't enough in the rivers and reservoirs. "This delusion has been abetted by a series of governors from Southern California, misguided regulators and politicians caving to constituents," wrote Michael Fitzgerald in his Stockton Record story.

This means that farmers who are planning on water for crops, may not get it, urban customers may be forced to cut back on how much water they use, or natural systems will be short-changed to provide for human interests instead.

But this isn't a recent development, and those who are getting shortchanged shouldn't be surprised either, says Bill Jennings, the executive director of the California Sportfishing Protection Alliance. It all has to do with the pecking order of water rights, where some folks have seniority over others.

Pumping restrictions on the delta have mostly affected the Westlands Water District, the largest water district on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley, and the massive water wholesaler MWD, who are both junior water rights holders at the bottom of the water rights hierarchy.

"So people are talking about getting a reduced percentage of what they never could have gotten in the first place," said Jennings. They basically have rights to what is often referred to as "paper water" -- water that doesn't exist in reality but has been contractually allocated.

But it turns out that those at the bottom of the pecking order have organized some serious political clout and financial backing. And those folks aren't just talking, they're marching.

A few weeks ago, thousands from San Joaquin Valley farming communities organized rallies and a four-day march to protest news that they weren't going to be getting any water from the federal Central Valley Project and only 30 percent from the State Water Project.

The region is the largest agricultural producer in the country and has been hard hit by tough economic times and the drought. The California Farm Bureau reported that "income loss to the Central Valley could be as high as $2.2 billion with 80,000 jobs lost." Unemployment in the area ranges from a staggering 25 to 45 percent.