Drought-Stricken California Is Basically Running a Water Ponzi Scheme

The state's water control board has been promising to produce about five times more water than it actually can. Whoops.

California has approved water rights agreements for a whopping five times as much water as it actually has, according to a study published Tuesday in Environmental Research Letters.

In fact, the State Water Resources Control Board (SWRCB), which manages the allocation of water rights to various agencies and districts, has been over-promising water rights for the last 100 years. In some case, there is a tenfold difference between the amount of water allocated and the genuine water flow in the state.

Needless to say, this may lead to serious problems if the state's record-breaking droughts continue—or worse, intensify with climate change. That's why the study's two authors, Joshua Viers and Theodore Grantham, recommend a drastic overhaul of the water rights system, with improved accuracy and accountability.

"Given the public's current attention on drought and California water, we now have an unprecedented opportunity for strengthening the water rights system," said Grantham, a US Geological Survey scientist, in a UC Davis statement.

It gives the public a false sense of water security

To assess the board's numbers over the last century, Grantham and Viers obtained 31,890 surface water rights records from the SWRCB'S public online archives. They discovered that the average amount of water promised to various entities declined over the twentieth century, but the number of those entities filing water requests has steadily increased. The water board continued to promise water rights to the growing populations without squaring it with the surface water that was actually available.

For example, since 1914, the SWRCB has had the same maximum amount of water to be allocated per year: 370 million acre-feet. (For reference, approximately one acre-foot of water is consumed by two households annually.) But currently, the average annual surface water flow is only 70 million acre-feet, and it will be even less than that if droughts continue to plague the state.

"It gives the public a false sense of water security," said Viers, a professor at UC Merced, in the LA Times. "It's kind of like standing in line to get into a concert and they give you a ticket when they're already at capacity. But you don't know that you'll never actually get in to see the show."

It's also kind of like a Ponzi scheme, only in place of imaginary money, you have inflated amounts of the most fundamental ingredient for all life on Earth. If people were pissed about losing their investments to Bernie Madoff, they will be justifiably irate over having phony water rights.

That's what worries Viers and Grantham the most, so they outlined some areas that might be particularly prone to water disputes and civic unrest if the situation isn't fixed. 

"For example," the study reads, "the results underscore the challenge of balancing human and ecosystem water needs in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, the hub of California's water management system and source of its greatest vulnerability."

But the authors also provided a number of optimistic examples of other countries overcoming the same problems. After suffering through a 13-year drought, Australia finally addressed its ramshackle water management system in 2004, by passing the National Water Initiative. South Africa ratified a similar law in 1998.

Indeed, Viers and Grantham don't anticipate major problems regarding the legalities of overhauling California's water rights systems. In their opinion, all that's needed to get it done is money, political will, and public interest. But until such a movement materializes, California will continue to bet the farm with its own water supply.