Drought-Stricken California Endangered by Water Ponzi Scheme

by Vins
Published: Updated:

California has approved water rights agreements for five times more water than is actually available. As Becky Ferreira reports, a study published in the journal Environmental Research Letters by researchers at UC-Davis and UC-Merced documents how the State Water Resources Control Board and its predecessors have been over allocating water rights for the last hundred years. According to Theodore E. Grantham and Joshua H. Viers, the study’s authors, the results show that water right allocations “total 400 billion cubic meters, approximately five times the state’s mean annual runoff.” The Board’s allocations give the public “a false sense of water security,” according to Viers, who likens the situation to “standing in line to get into a concert and they give you a ticket when they’re already at capacity…You’ll never actually get in to see the show.”

Without significant reform of the state’s water rights system, the report warns of “growing human and environmental demands” and “intensification of regional water scarcity and social conflict.” Nevertheless, the study also points to examples from other countries that have successfully addressed similar problems. For example, when Australia was suffering a thirteen-year drought, the government undertook major water reforms, ultimately enacting a National Water Initiative to address drought issues. South Africa ratified a similar law in 1998. California, the researchers contend, needs to muster the public interest and political will necessary to reform the state’s water rights system.


Becky Ferreira, “Drought-Stricken California is Basically Running a Water Ponzi           Scheme,” Motherboard, August 20, 2014, http://motherboard.vice.com/read/drought-stricken-california-is-basically-running-a-water-ponzi-scheme.

Student Researcher: Zoe Lindstrom (Sonoma State University)

Community Evaluator: Anne Butler