January 6, 2014

2014: the year of the water wars?

By Jonathan Wood Attorney

California, and much of the west, is experiencing its third consecutive year of drought. And a recent report on the Sierra Nevada snowpack—the source of much of California’s water—found that it is only 20% of its average depth at this point in the year. What does this mean? 2014 is likely to be rife with conflicts over water among residents, farmers, and environmentalists. Such feuding is inevitable when all sides look to the government to pick a winner amongst them.

That’s what makes a recent report from our friends at the Property and Environmental Research Center on an effort to avoid these conflicts in Siskiyou county all the more remarkable. The Scott River Water Trust is an environmental organization based in Northern California that leases water rights from their owners to maintain stream flows during low-flow periods to protect salmon. Because the leases are voluntary and the property owners are compensated, this approach facilitates environmental protection peacefully and without arbitrarily requiring one or a few individuals to bear the costs of providing a public benefit. As the report explains:

Not surprisingly, given that several salmon and steelhead populations are listed as threatened or endangered, environmental groups use litigation to try to reallocate water from farmers to fish. These lawsuits claim that the state and federal protections trump the property rights of water users. To date, the litigation has done more to breed acrimony and distrust between neighbors than to actually increase stream flows.

And according to early reports, the leasing approach has been successful. From 2008 to 2011, there was a more than five-fold increase in the coho salmon run in the Scott River watershed.

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