Carolee Krieger, CALMATTERS
We do not have a water crisis. We have a water management crisis, and we must revamp our water policy to reflect a drier future.
Water that is promised in a contract but can’t be delivered is called “paper water” – shorthand for water that does not exist except in legal documents.
During its mid-20th century frenzy of dam and canal construction, California allocated much more water than it actually had. These paper water commitments far exceed the amount of water than is available in our reservoirs and rivers. According to a study from the University of California, Davis, “appropriative water rights filed for consumptive uses are approximately five times greater than estimated surface water withdrawals.”
What this restrained academic language reveals is a management crisis: no matter how much it rains and snows in California, we will always have a chronic water shortage because of overallocation.
Why is this happening? As the UC Davis study found, the state has promised five times more water than could ever be delivered. Accelerating climate change only compounds the problem: Virtually all reputable computer models confirm California will receive less snow in coming decades, meaning our water deficit will only grow.
Meanwhile, overallocation remains at the core of California Department of Water Resources policy. In 2021, the State Water Project could deliver only 5% of its contracted water.