Water Wars Officially Begin In California

A century of government meddling has turned the issue of water rights on its head, and further centralized control of waterways in local, state, and federal governments; and, as Acuweather reports, with the state of California mired in its fourth year of drought and a mandatory 25% reduction in water usage in place, reports of water theft are becoming increasingly common. With a stunning 46% of the state in 'exceptional' drought, and forecast to worsen, huge amounts of water are 'going missing' from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and a state investigation was launched. From illegally tapping into hydrants in order to fill up tanks to directly pumping from public canals, California continues to formulate new strategies to preserve as much water as possible and fight the new water wars that are emerging.

Homeowners in Modesto, California, were fined $1,500, as Accuweather reporrs, for allegedly taking water from a canal. In another instance, thieves in the town of North San Juan stole hundreds of gallons of water from a fire department tank.

In Madera County, District Attorney David Linn has instituted a water crime task force to combat the growing trend of water theft occurring throughout the state and to protect rightful property owners from having their valuable water stolen.


The task force will combat agriculture crime through education by instructing farmers how to prevent crime before it occurs, Linn said in a news release back in March.


"Since the business of Madera is agriculture, I intend to make its protection a top priority," he said.


Jennifer Allen, spokesperson for the Contra Costa Water District in Concord, about 45 minutes from San Francisco, said it's not uncommon for her agency to receive reports of water theft, but as the drought has continued, she said there has been an uptick in reports.


"I believe during drought times people's sensitivities are certainly raised to any instances of water theft going on and so probably that's where we've been contacted," Allen said. "We would assume that more people are feeling the need to report out anything they've witnessed of somebody stealing water from a hydrant or from a neighbor."


To deter thieves, Allen said the CCWD Board of Directors has increased the fine for first-time offenders from $25 to $250. For any following offenses, the fine goes up to $500.

Primarily the CCWD has received reports of people illegally tapping into hydrants in order to fill up a tank or another sort of receptacle to store water. Additionally, Allen said that some contractors have targeted water pipes laid for new developments that may not have a meter attached to them or found a way to circumvent the meter.


Other water agencies are ramping up enforcement against water crime as well. The East Bay Municipal Utility District (EBMUD), headquartered in Oakland, has enacted a new ordinance that would allow them to "fine persons for stealing water or making unauthorized use of a public fire hydrant," according to its website. According to the EBMUD, violators would be fined $500 for the first offense and $1,000 for a second violation. But, as AP reported recently, the problems are far bigger (and deeper)...

As California struggles with a devastating drought, huge amounts of water are mysteriously vanishing from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta — and the prime suspects are farmers whose families have tilled fertile soil there for generations.


A state investigation was launched following complaints from two large agencies that supply water to arid farmland in the Central Valley and to millions of residents as far south as San Diego.


Delta farmers don't deny using as much water as they need. But they say they're not stealing it because their history of living at the water's edge gives them that right. Still, they have been asked to report how much water they're pumping and to prove their legal rights to it.


At issue is California's century-old water rights system that has been based on self-reporting and little oversight, historically giving senior water rights holders the ability to use as much water as they need, even in drought. Gov. Jerry Brown has said that if drought continues this system built into California's legal framework will probably need to be examined.


Delta farmer Rudy Mussi says he has senior water rights, putting him in line ahead of those with lower ranking, or junior, water rights.


"If there's surplus water, hey, I don't mind sharing it," Mussi said. "I don't want anybody with junior water rights leapfrogging my senior water rights just because they have more money and more political clout."


The fight pitting farmer against farmer is playing out in the Delta, the hub of the state's water system.

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A century of government meddling has turned the issue of water rights on its head, and further centralized control of waterways in local, state, and federal governments. Just as the residents of Los Angeles fought over water with local farmers, the residents of Las Vegas will soon find themselves fighting with surrounding states over what’s left of Lake Mead. None of the power players seem to care that the current population settlements of the southwestern United States cannot last. One day the water will run out. The sooner this reality is confronted, the better.

Admittedly, the ownership of water and its various bodies is a difficult topic. Rivers and tributaries don’t flow by man’s commands. They can be directed, but never fully controlled. Privatization of water rights would be a good start for restoring sane usage of natural resources. Don’t expect as much to happen though. Government control is far too entrenched in the process to be removed easily.

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Finally, some context, that old axiom that the earth is 75% water is wrong. In reality, water constitutes only 0.07% of the earth by mass, or 0.4% by volume.

This is how much we have, depicted graphically:

As we discussed previously, Water scarcity is, of course, not just a domestic issue. It is far more critical in other parts of the world than in the US. It will decide the fate of people and of nations. Worldwide, we are using potable water way faster than it can be replaced.