California, according to a Professor of Law at Stanford University, “has some of the most complicated water rights systems in the United States, if not the world.”
Buzz Thompson explained to KQED that early in California’s history, whoever got to the river first could declare that they owned the water. Early settlers claimed the water by nailing a piece of paper to a tree. The mayor of San Francisco did it to claim the Tuolumne River water in 1901.
Those who were lucky enough, or aggressive enough, to have reached the water first and staked a claim have senior rights. Those who came later have secondary rights.
This system accounts for the fact in periods of drought those with secondary or junior rights don’t get any water at all. The most senior appropriators, Thompson says, may get all of the water.
Certain parts of the drought stricken Central Valley are checkered with fields of green and fields of brown. The green fields belong to the senior rights holders and the brown belong to those with secondary water rights. “There’s an obvious dividing line,” says Lon Martin, assistant manager at the San Luis Water District. “They have much more senior rights.”
Water rights laws apply to cities as well. Older cities like San Francisco have senior rights and receive more and cheaper water than the latecomer water district that serves nearby Silicon Valley, KQED reported.
Critics say that the system is a historical relic and makes it difficult for California to manage the drought. Thompson explains that in California the first in line are people who own land next to a water way. They have “riparian” water rights, as they’re known. Since most Californians don’t live on a rivers or streams, which includes major cities and much of the agricultural areas across the state, many suffer, especially during droughts.
“Although that’s our legal system, it doesn’t necessarily amount to a fair system or an efficient system,” Thompson says. During droughts, he suggests, that senior rights holders take on more of the responsibility to balance out water distribution so that the junior holders aren’t left waterless when they need it the most.