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Drying up the delta: 19th century policies underlie today's crises

Because they got there first, irrigation districts most Californians have never heard of have dibs on vast amounts of water upstream from the delta— even in times of drought.

March 22, 2014|By Bettina Boxall

HAMILTON CITY, Calif. — A shallow inland sea spreads across more than 160 square miles, speckled with egrets poking for crayfish among jewel-green rice shoots.

The flooded fields could be mistaken for the rice paddies of Vietnam or southern China, but this is Northern California at the onset of severe drought.

The scene is a testament to the inequities of California's system of water rights, a hierarchy of haves as old as the state.

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Thanks to seniority, powerful Central Valley irrigation districts that most Californians have never heard of are at the head of the line for vast amounts of water, even at the expense of the environment and the rest of the state.

The list of the water-rich includes the Glenn-Colusa, Oakdale, South San Joaquin and Turlock districts. The average amount of Sacramento River water that Glenn-Colusa growers annually pump, for example, is enough to supply Los Angeles and San Francisco for a year.

In 2013, when government water projects slashed allocations to many San Joaquin Valley growers and the urban Southland because of dry conditions, the district drew its usual supply.

And although Glenn-Colusa and other senior diverters in the Sacramento Valley face unprecedented cuts this year because of the continuing drought, they have been promised 40% of their normal deliveries. Most growers supplied by the Central Valley's big irrigation project will probably get nothing.

Senior rights holders have in fact dodged years of delivery cuts triggered by the ecological collapse of California's water hub, the sprawling delta of the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers that lies more than 100 miles downstream of Glenn-Colusa's giant pumps.

The delta's native fish are hovering on the brink of extinction. Its waters are tainted by farm and urban runoff and infested with invasive species. Most problematic, biologists say, is the chronic shortage of what defines the delta: fresh water.

Year in and year out, so much is diverted by farms and cities upstream in the Sacramento and San Joaquin river basins and pumped from the delta itself that the average volume of flows out to San Francisco Bay is about half what it once was.

But blame for the delta's downward spiral falls mostly on the pumping by the junior state and federal water projects that send supplies hundreds of miles south to San Joaquin Valley agribusiness and the urban Southland.

To protect endangered fish species, those southbound water shipments have been subject to escalating restrictions, triggering an endless cycle of lawsuits and proposals to stem the delta's decline. The most recent is a $25-billion state plan to restore habitat and replumb the delta with the construction of two huge water tunnels.

At the same time, the impact on the delta of the massive upstream diversions has essentially been ignored. Regulators don't even know the total quantity that irrigators and cities suck from the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers and their tributaries.

Diverters with the greatest seniority "just stick a pipe in the river and out it goes," said UC Berkeley geography professor emeritus Richard Walker, an expert on California agribusiness. "They've never been touched."


As president of the Glenn-Colusa Irrigation District, Don Bransford is guardian of some of the oldest — and most abundant — water rights in the Central Valley.

They underpin a way of life that in its daily rhythms hasn't changed much since Bransford's grandparents migrated to the Sacramento Valley from Missouri in the 1920s.

Old barns, 19th century cemeteries and small towns dot a landscape that lives off the river curling through it, nourishing expansive fields of rice and regiments of gracefully arching walnut trees.

"Nothing is better for me than to wake up with the sun rising, and to look horizon to horizon and look at the beauty out here," said Bransford, 66, who planted his first rice crop more than three decades ago.

Glenn-Colusa's five-story pump station stands on an oxbow bend of the Sacramento River some 80 miles north of the capital, not far from where on Dec. 18, 1883, Will S. Green nailed a notice to an oak tree on the west bank.

The posting announced that he was diverting 500,000 miner's inches of the river's flow, the equivalent of several million gallons a minute. Green made his claim under a water rights system that developed with settlement of the West and remains a central principle of state law.

Known as "first in time, first in right," it was established in California by the Forty-Niners — who used prodigious amounts of water to blast gold out of the Sierra foothills — and essentially says that whoever is the first to divert a set quantity of water from a source has priority rights to it.

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