Infrastructure & Environment

The Lucky 4,000 in California's Drought

May 27, 2014
 

Call them the fortunate ones: Nearly 4,000 California companies, farms and others are allowed to use free water with little oversight when the state is so bone dry that deliveries to nearly everyone else have been severely slashed.

Their special status dates back to claims made more than a century ago when water was plentiful. But in the third year of a drought that has ravaged California, these "senior rights holders" dominated by corporations and agricultural concerns are not obliged to conserve water.

Nobody knows how much water they actually use, though it amounts to trillions of gallons each year, according to a review of their own reports by The Associated Press. Together, they hold more than half the rights to rivers and streams in California.

But the AP found the state's system is based on self-reported, incomplete records riddled with errors and years out of date. Some rights holders have vastly overstated their usage — in the mistaken belief, asserts Tom Howard, executive director of the State Water Resources Control Board, that it will preserve their right to draw more water in the future.

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