I. A Brief History
II. Various Water Rights
III. Poisoned Land Irrigation
IV. Secret Water Deal
V. Negative Impacts
VI. Solutions


I-5 and Canals SJValleyDWRb&w.previewCalifornia has two gigantic water development systems: the California State Water Project (SWP) and the Federal Central Valley Project (CVP).  Both use multiple dammed reservoirs to capture and store water, which is then redistributed via rivers and canals, generally from Northern California sources to San Joaquin Valley farms and southern California cities.

Originally conceived by state engineers, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation took over construction of the Central Valley Project in the 1930s because California could not pay for the scheme due to the Great Depression.

The California State Water Project was approved by the legislature in 1959 and bonds for its construction were narrowly approved by California voters in November 1960 (Proposition 1). Former Governor Earl Warren warned there was not water available to supply the SWP – and time has proved him prescient.

The SWP has chronically failed to meet contractual obligations since the 1980s.  Full SWP contract deliveries arepredicated on 1960 water availability estimates of anticipated diversions from north state rivers. Diversions from the Middle Fork Eel, the Mad and Van Duzen Rivers did not occur due to their ultimate state and federal designation as Wild and Scenic Rivers.

The Peripheral Canal was part of the original State Water Project plan, but it was defeated in a 1982 vote.  Governor Brown is trying to build a similar project known as the Twin Tunnels without a vote of the people.

Both water projects have low priority water rights. They were acquired starting in the 1920s and 1930s, and are thus considered “junior” to more “senior” rights held by many irrigation and water districts in the Central Valley, the City and County of San Francisco, Pacific Gas & Electric Company, Southern California Edison Corporation, and the East Bay Municipal Utilities District (which supplies Mokelumne River water to Alameda and Contra Costa counties).


hammer-of justiceIn California, there are multiple water rights. The California Supreme Court has established that riparian rights holders have priority for diverting water over most if not all appropriative water rights holders.  Appropriators may only divert water that is “surplus” to that diverted by riparian right holders from any given stream.  Further, there is a seniority system in place for appropriative water rights holders. Those with rights resulting from pre-1914 filing claims have priority over all other appropriative rights holders for diverting and using water. Until recently, their rights have not been subject to review or action by the State Water Board.

Various water rights include:
Riparian, Appropriative, Prescriptive, and Overlying Rights >>


Kesterson birds.preview

For more than four decades, the federal Central Valley Project (CVP) and the State water Project (SWP) have supplied water to growers irrigating approximately 1.3 million acres of drainage-impaired lands on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley and the Tulare Lake Basin.

These lands are naturally contaminated. They formed as an ancient seabed, and as wetlands of the period dried up, toxic elements such as selenium, boron, molybdenum, mercury and arsenic concentrated heavily in the soils and rocks.

When irrigation service provided by the CVP and SWP began in the western San Joaquin Valley and the Tulare Basin, agricultural drainage water concentrated and mobilized these contaminants. This ultimately led to the wholesale poisoning of Kesterson National Wildlife Refuge  in 1983.

Little is being done to track the selenium and other toxics mobilized by irrigation of poisoned lands.  The Grasslands Bypass Project has been given a 20-year waiver of selenium water quality objectives to dump toxic farm runoff into a tributary of the San Joaquin River.   There are no monitoring requirements by California regulators to determine how much selenium is being dumped into and accumulating in groundwater.


Courtesy of the Kern Water Bank Authority

Courtesy of the Kern Water Bank Authority

In 1994, state officials and five of the 29 State Water Project (SWP) contractors met secretly in Monterey to resolve water shortage issues. The contractors included the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California (MWD) and the Kern County Water Agency (KCWA), which together hold contracts for about 75 percent of the state’s water, and representatives from Paramount Farming, a private agricultural corporation.

The result of their meeting was the Monterey Amendments to the State Water Project contracts.  C-WIN has filed a lawsuit to overturn this latest effort to privatize California’s water.

The conclave was driven by an extended drought from 1987 to 1992.This devastating dry period had caused great financial stress among SWP agricultural contractors, and had provoked significant changes in the SWP’s operating principles. Further increasing the contractors’ angst was the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service’s 1993 listing of the Delta smelt as ‘threatened’ under the federal Endangered Species Act.

Drought conditions were so severe in 1991 that SWP deliveries to agricultural contracts were zero. While this was consistent with the principles of the original SWP contracts, the strictures enraged agricultural contractors; they were also distressed by their obligation to maintain payments on their share of the SWP “mortgage.” It was the ultimate cost-squeeze: “Entitlements” outlined in the SWP contracts meant little to agricultural contractors when drought restricted deliveries.

Most of the water delivered in 1991 by the State Water Project, for example, was sent to the dry muddy dirtMetropolitan Water District of Southern California, which largely serves urban water districts south of the Tehachapi Mountains. This reflected a long-standing “urban preference” in state water law and SWP contracts that decreed domestic and industrial water rights holders (such as cities and counties holding the requisite rights) would receive water first during droughts, prior to the claims of agricultural water users. The urban preference was established in the belief that it is more problematic to interrupt urban water deliveries than agricultural deliveries. The Monterey Amendments eliminated the urban preference, greatly imperiling secure water supplies to California’s cities.

As part of the Monterey Agreement, the Department of Water Resources turned over a state asset,
the Kern Water Bank to the Kern County Water Agency.  As noted above, the Kern Water Bank is a 20,000-acre alluvial fan that was established as “drought insurance” for SWP urban contractors. Water can be injected or withdrawn from this aquifer easily. The state transferred the bank in exchange for the retirement of 45,000 acre-feet of “paper water”. In other words, the state gave up a valuable public asset for “undelivered” water to Kern that didn’t even exist – except on paper or in computer files.

One day after DWR transferred the Kern Water Bank to the Kern County Water Agency, the Agency
turned over a majority interest in the Kern Water Bank to Paramount Farms, a private corporation owned by Stewart and Lynda Resnick, as part of a newly constituted public-private partnership called the Kern Water Bank Authority.

This privatization of the Kern Water Bank allowed the new owners to buy cheap “surplus” water, store it underground, and then sell it to the highest bidder for gargantuan returns. The Resnicks have reaped millions of dollars in profits since seizing the water bank, all courtesy of California’s water ratepayers.

In March 2014 as a result of C-WIN’s lawsuit, Sacramento County Superior Court Judge Timothy Frawley struck down the environmental review conducted for the Kern Water Bank, ruling it did not adequately address the full impacts of the water bank’s operation by San Joaquin Valley agribusiness interests. Further legal action is expected.

Delta SmeltThe operation of these enormous water projects is a primary factor in the collapse of Delta fish populations in the San Francisco Bay-Delta estuary.   The idea that millions of acre-feet of water can be exported without massive impacts, and that such a system is sustainable, is premised on magical thinking by state water industry officials and regulators.

In 2012, the California Water Impact Network (C-WIN) completed a first of its kind analysis of Central Valley water availability compared to water rights claims and the priority of those claims. The analysis determined that there is an average of 29 million Acre-Feet of consumptive water available in the Delta system in an average year, but there are 153.7 million acre feet of consumptive water rights claims for that water.   C-WIN’s conclusion that consumptive water rights claims are over five times more than available water supplies for the Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers was corroborated by UC Davis in 2014.  The CVP and SWP have junior water right claims and clearly cannot provide full contract deliveries, especially during drought because other water users have superior water rights.

It is clear why Governor Earl Warren made the statement that there was inadequate water for the State Water Project.  The water simply isn’t there to fulfill all of the promises.


  • Ending “paper water,” which is water granted to claimants that does not exist. Water rights claims in California exceed the amount of available water by a factor of 5.5.
  • Reinstatement of the “urban preference” in State Water Project (SWP) contracts. If the urban preference were reinstated, Southern California and Silicon Valley SWP allocations would increase 25% over 2015 deliveries at the expense of corporate growers – including Brown’s friend and contributor Stewart Resnick,who irrigates 120,000 acres of water-intensive nuts, citrus and pomegranates with cheap state water.
  • Prohibit the planting of permanent crops in areas with unreliable water, groundwater overdraft and selenium-contaminated soils. Growing almonds in the western San Joaquin Valley and the Tulare and Kern Basins requires four acre feet of water per acre compared to the two acre feet per acre needed by almonds in the eastern Sacramento Valley, which has greater rainfall and aquifers that contain sufficient water.
  • Return the Kern Water Bank to public ownership. This project originally was designed as emergency drought protection for Southern California cities and the Silicon Valley. But the Monterey Amendments, a secret agreement between the State and corporate agriculture, transferred control of the Kern Water Bank to Brown contributor Stewart Resnick.
  • Prohibit flood irrigation, substituting drip and mist systems. This move alone could save millions of acre-feet of water a year.
  • Require agricultural water districts to provide information on aquifer pumping, groundwater levels and groundwater quality. The lack of such record keeping encourages overdraft.
  • Require permitting and full environmental review of new water bottling facilities, including a planned Crystal Geyser plant in Mount Shasta that will pump thousands of gallons of water daily from the springs that constitute the headwaters of the Sacramento River.
  • Ban fracking and the subterranean disposal of fracking wastes. Fracking depletes California’s already overdrafted aquifers, and threatens widespread contamination of our     remaining groundwater reserves.
  • Compel the State Water Resources Board to adjudicate water rights in the Sacramento and San Joaquin basins, removing paper water from water rights permits and contracts.
  • Retire 1.3 million acres of San Joaquin Valley poisoned lands from irrigated agriculture.The landowners could convert to solar farms, reaping substantial profits and providing the state with much-needed sustainable energy.
  • Eliminate agricultural water subsidies.
  • Encourage limited environmentally sensitive ocean desal for coastal communities to free up water for inland communities.
  • Extensively fund conservation, recycling and stormwater capture.