"Who Gets the Water in California? Whoever Gets There First."

"As the world warms, the state is re-examining claims to its water that have gone unchallenged for generations."

"The story of California’s water wars begins, as so many stories do in the Golden State, with gold.

The prospectors who raced westward after 1848 scoured fortunes out of mountainsides using water whisked, manically and in giant quantities, out of rivers. To impose some order on the chaos, the newcomers embedded in the state’s emerging water laws a cherished frontier principle: first come first served. The only requirement for holding on to this privileged status was to keep putting the water to work. In short, use it or lose it.

Their water rights assured, the settlers gobbled up land, laid down dams, ditches, communities. Shrewd barons turned huge estates into jackpots of grain, cattle, vegetables and citrus. California grew and grew and grew, sprouting new engines of wealth along the way: oil, Hollywood, Apple, A.I.

Yet, still today the state is at the mercy of claims to water that were staked more than a century ago, in that cooler, less crowded world. As drought and overuse sap the state’s streams and aquifers, California finds itself haunted by promises, made to generations of farmers and ranchers, of priority access to the West’s most precious resource, with scant oversight, essentially forever."

Raymond Zhong reports for the New York Times December 14, 2023, with photographs by Nathan Weyland amd data analysis and graphics by Mira Rojanasakul.

Source: NYTimes, 12/15/2023