Editorial: The feds can curb a foolish California water giveaway
When the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, the government agency that manages water in the state of California, released its proposed water law last month, its message carried a subtext: We’re looking to expand the state’s power to take water from farmers who don’t want to give it to the state. But as the law was written, it didn’t offer farmers very much help. By law, water users in California must use the state’s water resources and they cannot make more than the water they’re using. In other words, the state cannot take water from farmers unless they give it up.
And that’s why the water law is so troubling. Under law, farmers are supposed to cooperate with the state government, in terms of water rights, and the state can’t force any water users to give it up unless their farmers cooperate. But how do you know who wants to give up water, and who doesn’t? The state hasn’t even made a public list of farmers who don’t want to give up water.
The federal Bureau of Reclamation has a lot of power. In this case, it could have used the power to issue a rule that would require farmers to be more cooperative. But in doing so, it would have had to weigh the cost of doing so against the benefits to the public. The bureau’s proposed rule would have required private agreements between farmers and water suppliers, with some exceptions, and it would have made some other changes to water law to make it easier to control water supplies.
But the Bureau of Reclamation would have had to come up with those rules before the end of the year, which was when the state law was supposed to take effect. So instead, the bureau released a watered-down version of its proposed rule after its deadline. The bureau’s watered-down proposal would have required farmers to give up some water rights for the first time since the law took effect in