Water Games: Who owns California’s water?

California’s agriculture business is world famous for the abundance and diversity of food crops produced by the state.   And since agriculture needs an abundance of fresh water, one of the important questions to consider is:  Who owns the rights to distribute water in California?  Some would say that the Kern Water Bank owns the rights to a large portion of municipal and agricultural water.  Yet how did a conglomerate of municipal water agencies and one large agribusiness come to own this water?

In considering these very questions, a history of recent water rights policy and legislation is crucial.  Beginning in 1994 the State Water Project (SWP) , a consortium of contractors that delivered water to the urban and agriculture districts in Southern California met behind closed doors and decided to sellout water coming from the San Joaquin Delta to this conglomerate.

The agriculture industry in the Golden State is one of the primary economic engines that has, and continues to generate great wealth for California’s businesses, providing upwards of $46 billion in revenue annually.  However, any agricultural industry is limited by the availability of one great resource – water.  And consequently, California is no stranger to substantial hand wringing and stress over the precious availability of fresh water.

Southern California is a perennially dry region of the state with minimal annual rainfall, and lacks sufficient local water resources to manage its municipal and agricultural water needs.  Perhaps an even greater grievance in the Monterey meetings was that the SWP relinquished control of the Kern Water Bank, the largest underground water storage facility of its kind, to a supposed public water trust that is in part owned by one of the biggest agribusiness conglomerates in the United States – Paramount Farming Company.

California crops with an overhead irrigation delivery system


The Kern Water Bank, which provided water for some 25 million Californians and 700,000 acres of agriculture, and was initially built from a $1.75 billion California state bond had been relinquished to the Westside Mutual Water Company, taking over ownership of massive amounts of water from state governmental control.

Some would say that this change of ownership had put a massive amount of water under the control of a privately held business, and stealing water away from the public good of the state of California.  Paramount Farming is considered to be the largest agribusiness in the United States. So the big question is, did the Monterey Amendment of the State Water Project give the Kern Water Bank, and the 100 million feet acres of California water to a privately held business?  Environmentalists and water rights lawyers think the answer to that question is yes, that the State Water Project had given away water, a public commodity, to a consortium of privately held corporations and public water districts, water which is now out of the control of the State of California to use in times of emergency or drought.

As a result the Center for Biological Diversity has been fighting an ongoing legal battle to return the Kern Water Bank to the public good of Californians which could be used when needed in water emergencies.  Currently the Kern Water Bank is still under the control of Westside Mutual Water Company and seeks to divert more water away from the San Joaquin Delta to be stored at the water bank, further rankling environmentalists and water rights advocates.


A sign stating the private property at the Kern Water Bank near Bakersfield, CA









In subsequent posts to follow I will explore the current topic of the how the Kern Water Bank is seeking to divert water from the state’s largest watershed, the Sacramento River Waterbasin, by building tunnels that would bypass the San Joaquin Delta.  A move that could further exacerbate the ecological and fishery issues of the delta.   Additionally, I will continue to write about the other recent changes in California water rights which have allowed the State Water Project to relinquish increasingly more control over the state’s water.  Other issues that will be explored is governmental and public opinion on the the proposed 10-year plan to build two diversion tunnels in the San Joaquin Delta watershed.






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