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Reason to question California’s “reasonable use” standard on water resources

Small alterations to irrigation practices used by California farmers could remove the need for massive new dams and canals, better protect the environment and leave more drinking water for residential customers, according to a report expected to be released to state water regulators in California next week.  Bettina Boxall profiles that report in the Los Angeles Times.

The report, certain to spark controversy among those benefiting from the status quo, suggests regulators revisit the legalistic phrase “reasonable use” in the state’s constitution:

The principle, reinforced in statute and court decisions, holds that a water right does not include the right to waste water and mandates that “the water resources of the state be put to beneficial use.”

The concept has never fully been defined. Craig Wilson, who serves as “Watermaster” over the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta — through which most of California’s fresh water passes on the way to the ocean — will present the report to the State Water Quality Control Board.

Experts such as Peter Gleick, president of the Pacific Institute, a non-partisan research group, have claimed that California agriculture could cut its water usage by 10 to 15 percent by adopting more sophisticated irrigation techniques.

Representatives of the California Farm Water Coalition predictably dispute the conclusions, suggesting the changes required are far from small and would be prohibitively expensive to implement.

It just makes sense — just as with electricity — for California and federal officials to be looking at conservation and, if need be, subsidies for improving efficiency, rather than preparing to spend billions on building more canals and reservoirs.

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