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When Governor Jerry Brown asked urban dwellers to curtail their usage of water, it caused an uproar. The culprit was agriculture, and it was sucking up eighty percent of California’s water at 8.6 trillion gallons per year. A sword now hung over the heads of the farmers. It threatened to take away the water they did have. Some farmers whose rights to water were protected by long-standing riparian laws were worried that this drought would rewrite history.

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Among the farmers, the water right priority system is what determines who gets to use water in times of shortage. “Junior water right holders will be told to cease their diversions first in times of shortage so that water is available to meet senior water right holders’ needs. In general, the most senior are riparian water right holders. They are adjacent to the water body and are using water on the land that abuts the water body. Next are the appropriators. Their rights are based on the concept of first in time, first in right. “The ones with more recent rights (junior water right holders) are curtailed first,” explains the Water Authority, which decides who gets how much water and what gets planted.

Junior water right holders in the Sacramento and San Joaquin River watersheds and others have already been curtailed for the second consecutive year, but this year the seniors fear that the government may be forced to cut their rights too, which so far have been protected by history. What has been rightfully theirs since before 1914 may be taken away. The concern is what would they do if they planted the field for the summer with row crops like tomatoes, potatoes and asparagus, and the government withdrew their right to water? San Joaquin’s farmers, with senior rights, thought they must take preventive action before the government takes deeper or unpredictable cuts. It was suggested and agreed, that in the interest of realistic planning they would work with the authorities and volunteer to use one quarter less of their water. Farmers with senior rights from the Sacramento Valley agreed to join in.13

Riparian laws had existed in Punjab as well. When India got independence, each state had ownership of the rivers and lakes that ran through their state but that had not stopped the Indian government in 1966 from declaring that it was giving away Punjab’s water to Haryana, Rajasthan and Delhi. Could the drought repeat Punjabi history in California?
The senior farmers, to manage the risk of potentially deeper curtailment, offered to give up twenty five per cent of their water rights in exchange for assurances they would not face further riparian curtailment during the June-September growing season. The state accepted their offer. Thus the ongoing drought forced one of the most important concessions and marked the first cuts to the state’s most senior water rights holders anywhere in the state since the 1970s, and the first in memory to senior rights holders along the San Joaquin.

The Sacramento River, the principal river of Northern California, flows south from the Klamath Mountains. The San Joaquin River runs north towards San Francisco Bay, through the Central Valley. Both rivers merge in the delta near Sacramento and flow under the Golden Gate Bridge into the Pacific Ocean. Farms along both rivers need water.

The difference between the two valleys is that the Sacramento Valley is not as short on water as the Central Valley. The Sacramento River is fat, fed by the melting snows, rain and its many tributaries while the San Joaquin River is dry by the time it reaches Fresno, drained of all its water by the canals which draw water into the farms that fan out from the river’s shores. The Sacramento River area gets more rain and loses less water to the air as the temperatures are lower. It is less hot in the valley of the Sacramento River. The Central or the San Joaquin Valley is parched and hot. A sacrifice of water by the farmers of San Joaquin means cutting back on what they desperately need.

On 22nd May, 2015, the New York Times reported “on Friday, in a sign of how the record-setting drought is shaking up established ways here, state officials accepted an offer from farmers in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta to give up a quarter of their water this season, either by leaving part of their land unplanted or finding other ways to reduce their water use. In return, the state has assured them that it will not seek further reductions for the growing season. The deal was symbolic and potentially precedent-setting, reported the Times.14
“A water right gives the holder legal permission to use water for beneficial purposes, such as for agriculture, municipal water supply, recreation and the environment. Water right holders do not own the water, but they have the right to beneficially use reasonable amounts of it, when water is available under their priority of right. Drought has given a major blow to Punjabi farming community and California’s agricultural economy, but I am confident that they will eventually rebound and farmers will use water more efficiently in the future,” says Mr. Jay (Jatinder) Punia, who has extensive experience working for California Department of Water Resources and the Central Valley Flood Protection Board. “The Californian weather pattern historically gives us hope that the drought has run its course.” The el Nino, flooding Texas in May may predict a wet winter for Californian city and farm dwellers.

While we wait with bated breath, eyes raised to the sky, the Californian drought has indeed taught us we must nail some new rules and plans to the trees.

Ritu Marwah has pursued theater, writing, marketing, startup management, raising children, coaching debate and hiking. Ritu graduated from Delhi with a master’s degree in business, joined the Tata Group and worked in London for ten years.

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