The Associated Press reports that roughly 4,000 California companies, farms, and other entities hold the majority of rights to rivers and streams and, as a result, receive free water during the severe drought now plaguing the state.
These entities received their rights from claims made over one hundred years ago and are considered “senior rights holders” and thus not obligated to conserve water. Estimates of the amount of water they use range up to trillions of gallons each year. Bob Rinker, a manager in the State Water Resources Control Board’s water rights division, stated, “We really don’t know how much water they’ve actually diverted.”
The antiquated water system is derived from laws dating back to the 1800’s, when the state gave water rights to the first people staking claims on the water in the state. North of the Central Valley, farmers can bank on the water from the Feather River because of the old laws.
The majority of the 3,897 entities with active senior and riparian rights to water are corporations, including Pacific Gas & Electric Co., which creates hydroelectric power, and the Hearst Corp., which uses water for its forest compound, called Wyntoon.
In 2014, the state reduced water deliveries to farmers and cities by 95 percent, but the entities that owned water rights pre-dating 1914 were exempt from mandatory cuts. The water board does not measure the amount of water used by those whose rights go back more than 100 years.
In 2009, the State Water Resources Control Board obtained limited power to punish rights holders for not reporting their water use. But Aaron Miller, a board senior engineer, said that the water board doesn’t have personnel who systematically check obvious mistakes in the records.