An Equity Autopsy: Exploring the Role of Water Rights in Water Allocations and Impacts for the Central Valley Project during the 2012–2016 California Drought

Authors: Zachary Sugg*, Stanford Law School
Topics: Human-Environment Geography, Water Resources and Hydrology, Natural Resources
Keywords: water, california, equity, law, infrastructure
Session Type: Paper
Day: 4/7/2019
Start / End Time: 3:55 PM / 5:35 PM
Room: Empire Room, Omni, West
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


Entrenched Western water rights regimes may appear to function relatively well in wet years, but extreme drought events can expose the kinds of harsh ecological and socio-economic outcomes that the hard edges of prior appropriation inherently generate. During the 2012–2016 California drought some irrigators received little or no water at all in consecutive years while others received comparatively large allocations. This paper focuses on the role that California’s water rights priority system and its administration via Central Valley Project contracts have played in generating disproportionate water allocations and impacts during the drought. The analysis is structured around two key questions: (a) in what ways does strict adherence to a priority system of water allocations produce inequitable socio-ecological outcomes during severe drought? (b) how might the system be changed to foster outcomes that are more equitable and fair, and with less costly and less serious conflicts in a non-stationary climate future marked by extreme events? Using an equity perspective, I draw from the doctrine of equitable apportionment to imagine a water rights regime that is better able to create a fairer distribution of drought impacts while meaningfully elevating the importance of future generations and increasing adaptive capacity.

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