California’s mega-drought has led some individuals to steal water from reservoirs and residential supplies. But the bigger problem is confusion over the state’s water rights law.

Anyone can apply for a water use permit – from an individual who wants to fill a pond, to a farmer who needs to irrigate crops, or communities that need drinking water.

Reservoir in California's Sierra Nevada

California has a “first in time” water rights system. So those with seniority get first dibs during a drought. In general, those with water rights assigned before the year nineteen fourteen get senior status. Those issued later are junior and more likely to be restricted.

California’s water levels are now so low, most post-1914 permits are worth less than the paper they’re written on.

But Cris Carrigan, Director of the State Water Resources Control Board says complex laws and insufficient enforcement mean many people are confused by, or ignore, the rules.

Carrigan: “So we see a lot more problems with unauthorized diversions where juniors are diverting or taking water.”

Carrigan says until the drought ends or California’s water rights laws are revised, these unauthorized diversions will likely get worse as the climate gets warmer and drier.

Reporting credit: ChavoBart Digital Media/Franklin Crawford.
Photo: Drained Reservoir in Sierra Nevada, California, (Shaver Lake) (copyright protected).

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U.S. Drought Monitor: California

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