Environmental Law

Envt'l Law News Fall 2015, Vol. 24, No. 2

Data Drought: Could Better Information Help Resolve Longstanding Conflicts Over Delta Water?

by Colleen Flannery*

When Delta farmers recently volunteered to cut by one quarter the amount of water they will use to irrigate their crops,1 some quickly labeled it a "white flag" in California’s water wars.2 But the extraordinary gesture instead could be seen as a red flag forewarning of even more intense conflicts to come in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta.

The Delta supplies a portion of the water for 25 million Californians, as well as the water that irrigates three million acres of farmland.3 For the fifth straight year, freshwater flows into the Delta have been in drought conditions, exposing deep flaws in an exports system premised on wetter years. These flaws appear most starkly where in-Delta water users, who mostly divert under riparian or pre-1914 senior water rights, square off against those who rely upon Central Valley Project (CVP) and State Water Project (SWP) flows.

The CVP-SWP exporters in 2014 and 2015 filed complaints alleging improper in-Delta diversions while maintaining their own right to use previously stored water. The State Water Resources Control Board ("State Water Board") responded to that complaint by requiring in-Delta users to submit paper evidence proving their water rights, and has begun unprecedented curtailments of Delta riparian and senior appropriative water rights.4

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