Why Solving California’s Water Woes Will Take More Than Rain

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An irrigation ditch near the Solano County town of Dixon.  (Craig Miller/KQED)

California is finally getting some rain -- and there's been enough snow in the Sierra already for some ski resorts to open early. But the impact of California's drought will be around for a while, and a long-term solution to the state's water problems will require a lot more than just one winter of rain and snow.

KQED Science editor Craig Miller joined The California Report on Friday to discuss the drought and a new report that urges the state to address perhaps its most fundamental water challenge.

The study, from the Public Policy Institute of California, argues that the growing demand for water makes it imperative to reform the state's system of allocating this essential resource. The PPIC report says the drought has shown the water rights system to be "fragmented, inconsistent, and lacking in transparency and clear lines of authority."

"The PPIC is attacking the sacred cow by saying it's time to make some changes in the water rights system," Miller said. "Water rights in California are sacrosanct. They're like property rights. They are property rights. They determine the pecking order, when water is short, of who gets what and when."

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But the PPIC report stops short of recommending that the state change that "sacrosanct" priority system.

"The PPIC is not saying it's time to throw out the whole system ... but to make it more even-handed, like Australia, where they've put a system in place where when water is short, everybody takes a haircut," said Miller.

One way the PPIC recommends making the system more even-handed is to keep certain rights owners from gaming the system.

"It's a special case, it gets a little complicated, but [this happens when] people who have two different types of water rights can kind of toggle back and forth to whichever is more advantageous for them at the time," Miller said.

The PPIC says it's time to amend the law to require rights-holders to choose between one right or the other for the same land. But since making that change would require legislative action, don't hold your breath.

In the meantime, Gov. Jerry Brown says the state needs to extend the water restrictions he put in place in April.

An executive order the governor issued two weeks ago says that if drought conditions persist by the end of January, then the range of watering and other restrictions that have already been in place would run through next October.

So how will we know if drought conditions persist?

"I asked the state water board how we'll know, and the answer I got back was, 'They will,' " Miller said.

"I have heard scientists say it would take double the statewide average of precipitation to make up the cumulative rain and snow deficit from this four-year drought," Miller said. "If that actually happens, the impacts would be biblical and we'd all be looking to build an ark at that point."