In Epic Drought, California’s Water Cops Get Tough at Last

HANFORD, CA - APRIL 24: A worker digs a ditch next to a fallow field on April 24, 2015 in Hanford, California. As California enters its fourth year of severe drought, farmers in the Central Valley are struggling to keep crops watered as wells run dry and government water allocations have been reduced or terminated. Many have opted to leave acres of their fields fallow. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

WANT TO GET rich? Move to California, become a lawyer. Most important, specialize in water, because as the state’s drought drags on, every drop of coastal rain, every flake of Sierra snowpack, and every inch of reservoir water becomes both more valuable and more contested. Before long you’ll start counting rain drops—every one that fails to fall will ring cha-ching.

The latest windfall to California’s legal community came Friday, when the State Water Resources Control Board announced it was cutting certain historical water rights—held by some farmers, communities, and companies for more than a century. In a normal state with a normal drought, this wouldn’t be too much of an issue. But California water policies are so old (and so unsuited to the state’s desert ecosystem) that they might be outside the jurisdiction of the present-day water board. With barely a weekend for curtailment news to simmer, the summer air is already thick with lawsuit rumors.

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“California has the most complex system of water rights in the world,” says Buzz Thompson, a legal expert in said system at Stanford University. The state’s problems trace back to its earliest days. In order to take the stress out of drafting up a constitution from scratch, California’s founders adopted English Common Law, and customized it with caveats to fit their needs. Unfortunately, they didn’t bother amending the Common Law rules on water allocations.