SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — 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.
The AP found the state’s system is based on self-reported, incomplete records riddled with errors and years out of date; some appear to be using far less water than records would indicate.
“We really don’t know how much water they’ve actually diverted,” said Bob Rinker, a manager in the State Water Resources Control Board’s water rights division.
With a burgeoning population and projections of heightened climate-related impacts on snowpack and other water supplies, the antiquated system blunts California’s ability to move water where it is most needed.
When gold miners flocked to the West in the 1800s, the state drafted laws that rewarded those who first staked claims on the region’s abundant rivers and streams. Today, California still relies on that honor system, even during drought.the world.