Will climate change alter water rights?

May 27, 2021
Jesse Vad, SJV Water reporting intern
by Jesse Vad, SJV Water reporting intern
Speakers at the May 25 Water Association of Kern County annual water summit included Attorney Valerie Kincaid (top left), Erik Ekdahl, State Water Resources Control Board Deputy Director of the Division of Water Rights (top right), Author Mark Arax (bottom left), Department of Water Resources Groundwater Management Deputy Director Steven Springhorn (bottom right)
Jesse Vad, SJV Water reporting intern
Jesse Vad, SJV Water reporting intern

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The specter of climate change isn’t just impacting weather, it could also change California water rights, according to experts who spoke at this year’s annual Water Summit put on by the Water Association of Kern County.

The May 25 virtual event included a host of experts who caught attendees up on the latest information about groundwater, broken canals and how much farmland may have to be taken out of production in the San Joaquin Valley.

The topic that generated the most heat involved a report issued earlier this year by the California State Water Resources Control board about how climate change predictions may be included in new water rights applications.

Climate change could mean shorter, more intense wet seasons with less snow and longer, hotter dry periods, said Erik Ekdahl, Deputy Director of the State Water Resources Control Board. That will have to be taken into account when the Water Board considers how much water is actually available, and when, under new rights applications.

For example, a new water right would need to be filled earlier in the water season since the wet months are shortening due to climate change.

Though he stressed that climate change predictions would only affect new rights applications, not existing water rights, Attorney Valerie Kincaid, with O’Laughlin & Paris, said senior rights holders have serious concerns.

That example of new rights being issued in early months is exactly the kind of thing that makes senior rights holders nervous as they wonder if their right would then cease to be useful, Kincaid said.

There were a number of funding updates including for repairs to the Friant-Kern Canal, which brings water from Millerton Lake near Fresno south to towns and farms all the way to Arvin. A 33-mile section of the canal starting at about Pixley in Tulare County to Lake Woollomes in Kern County has sunk as excessive groundwater pumping has caused the land to sink.

That sag has reduced the amount of water that can be moved through the canal by 60 percent. The cost to fix it has been estimated at $500 million.

Camille Touton, Deputy Commissioner of the Bureau of Reclamation told attendees that a cost-share agreement has been finalized with Friant Water Authority to repair the sinking section. The Bureau is accepting proposals for the first stage of construction and Touton expects “shovels in the ground” by fall.

And there will be more money for local groundwater agencies to implement measures to refill aquifers per the state’s new Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, which requires basins to bring aquifers into balance – meaning more water can’t be pumped out than goes back in – by 2040.

Steven Springhorn, Acting Deputy Director of Groundwater Management for the Department of Water Resources, said the state will dole out $200 million for SGMA assistance over the next four years and Governor Gavin Newsom’s May budget revise includes $1 billion for SGMA assistance, though it still needs approval from the Legislature.

Finally, author Mark Arax talked about his book “The Dreamt Land,” and what he’s learned about water and the valley over his career.

When asked how he thought Kern County was doing in terms of groundwater sustainability, Arax said Kern is in an extreme water deficit and would have to take farmland out of production to become sustainable.

“It’s going to be a painful process to see farmland fallowed,” said Arax. “Do we have the wherewithal to do it? That’s the question.”

Jesse Vad, SJV Water reporting intern

SJV Water is an independent, nonprofit news site dedicated to covering water in the San Joaquin Valley. Get inside access to SJV Water by becoming a member.


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