River Watch Header Image

Who Is Stealing California’s Water?

Peter Gleick, Pacific Institute, November 4, 2009

We must stop pretending that water is free and unlimited, available to anyone who can put a siphon in a river or drill another groundwater well.

What do I mean by stealing water? I mean people extract water from our rivers and streams without a right to do so. Legal water rights are managed by the State Board. Water rights permit and license holders are required by the California Code of Regulations to file reports with the State Water Board on their water diversion and use amounts. Fewer than 70 percent of permit holders actually submit these reports. There is no penalty for failure to file a report and, worse, no verification of the numbers reported. Further, information is not available to compare face value of water rights to actual use. Some, perhaps many, rights holders are likely taking more than their right allows.

Moreover, the State Board does not have authority over the earliest water rights claims — so-called Pre-1914 rights — and the Board estimates that there are approximately 1,600 unreported Pre-1914 and riparian diversions in the Delta. How much water are these diverters taking? No one knows, or looks, or measures. The story is even worse for groundwater. Percolating groundwater is not subject to the State Water Board’s permitting system (as though it was magically different from surface water. It isn’t.) and, in most of the state is not regulated by any other public agency. How can we sustainably manage what we don’t even measure? Where is our groundwater going? What is the effect of this groundwater use on surface flows? Who knows?

As bad as things are for understanding existing rights and use, there are thousands of water users extracting water with no rights at all. Or so we think. Why don’t we know?

Water Number: Eight. There are only eight people statewide with responsibility for policing water theft and rights violations at the State Water Resources Control Board, and even they have other demands on their time. Republicans (and some Democrats), in the recent debate over water legislation, opposed increasing that number to around 30, and also opposed more stringent requirements that water uses be measured and reported.

Why? Because a small number of powerful people, though not most of us, and certainly not the environment, benefit from our ignorance on this issue. If actual water uses were limited to those allowed by water rights, some of us suspect that there would be a lot more water left in the rivers or available to junior water rights holders. Maybe a part of the problem with water in California, and part of the problem with the health of the Delta fisheries, is water theft, not just over-allocation and inefficient use. Wouldn’t it be nice to know?

But this would require — gasp! — actually measuring and monitoring all water use, from surface sources to groundwater. And it would require enforcing water rights. What radical concepts. It is time for Californians to demand that we stop pretending that water is free and unlimited, available to anyone who can put a siphon in a river or drill another groundwater well. When these things are left unregulated, or as badly regulated as they are now, we rob current and future generations.

Dr. Peter Gleick is president of the Pacific Institute, an internationally recognized water expert and a MacArthur Fellow.