HAMILTON CITY, Calif. — A shallow inland sea spreads across more than 160 square miles, speckled with egrets poking for crayfish among jewel-green rice shoots.
The flooded fields could be mistaken for the rice paddies of Vietnam or southern China, but this is Northern California at the onset of severe drought.
The scene is a testament to the inequities of California’s system of water rights, a hierarchy of haves as old as the state.
Thanks to seniority, powerful Central Valley irrigation districts that most Californians have never heard of are at the head of the line for vast amounts of water, even at the expense of the environment and the rest of the state.
The list of the water-rich includes the Glenn-Colusa, Oakdale, South San Joaquin and Turlock districts. The average amount of Sacramento River water that Glenn-Colusa growers annually pump, for example, is enough to supply Los Angeles and San Francisco for a year.
In 2013, when government water projects slashed allocations to many San Joaquin Valley growers and the urban Southland because of dry conditions, the district drew its usual supply.
And although Glenn-Colusa and other senior diverters in the Sacramento Valley face unprecedented cuts this year because of the continuing drought, they have been promised 40% of their normal deliveries. Most growers supplied by the Central Valley’s big irrigation project will probably get nothing.
Senior rights holders have in fact dodged years of delivery cuts triggered by the ecological collapse of California’s water hub, the sprawling delta of the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers that lies more than 100 miles downstream of Glenn-Colusa’s giant pumps.
The delta’s native fish are hovering on the brink of extinction. Its waters are tainted by farm and urban runoff and infested with invasive species. Most problematic, biologists say, is the chronic shortage of what defines the delta: fresh water.
Year in and year out, so much is diverted by farms and cities upstream in the Sacramento and San Joaquin river basins and pumped from the delta itself that the average volume of flows out to San Francisco Bay is about half what it once was.
But blame for the delta’s downward spiral falls mostly on the pumping by the junior state and federal water projects that send supplies hundreds of miles south to San Joaquin Valley agribusiness and the urban Southland.
To protect endangered fish species, those southbound water shipments have been subject to escalating restrictions, triggering an endless cycle of lawsuits and proposals to stem the delta’s decline. The most recent is a $25-billion state plan to restore habitat and replumb the delta with the construction of two huge water tunnels.
At the same time, the impact on the delta of the massive upstream diversions has essentially been ignored. Regulators don’t even know the total quantity that irrigators and cities suck from the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers and their tributaries.
Diverters with the greatest seniority “just stick a pipe in the river and out it goes,” said UC Berkeley geography professor emeritus Richard Walker, an expert on California agribusiness. “They’ve never been touched.”
As president of the Glenn-Colusa Irrigation District, Don Bransford is guardian of some of the oldest — and most abundant — water rights in the Central Valley.
They underpin a way of life that in its daily rhythms hasn’t changed much since Bransford’s grandparents migrated to the Sacramento Valley from Missouri in the 1920s.
Old barns, 19th century cemeteries and small towns dot a landscape that lives off the river curling through it, nourishing expansive fields of rice and regiments of gracefully arching walnut trees.
“Nothing is better for me than to wake up with the sun rising, and to look horizon to horizon and look at the beauty out here,” said Bransford, 66, who planted his first rice crop more than three decades ago.
Glenn-Colusa’s five-story pump station stands on an oxbow bend of the Sacramento River some 80 miles north of the capital, not far from where on Dec. 18, 1883, Will S. Green nailed a notice to an oak tree on the west bank.
The posting announced that he was diverting 500,000 miner’s inches of the river’s flow, the equivalent of several million gallons a minute. Green made his claim under a water rights system that developed with settlement of the West and remains a central principle of state law.
Known as “first in time, first in right,” it was established in California by the Forty-Niners — who used prodigious amounts of water to blast gold out of the Sierra foothills — and essentially says that whoever is the first to divert a set quantity of water from a source has priority rights to it.
A native of Kentucky and descendant of Virginia colonists, Green arrived in San Francisco in 1849. He was 17, 6 feet 2 and so skinny that he had to hold up his pants by fastening them to his shirt buttons. Before long he was piloting a small steamboat up the Sacramento to help his uncle map out the future town of Colusa.
“I seem to be reveling in a very Garden of Eden,” he later wrote of his maiden trip up the river.
Flanked by the Coast Range and the Sierra Nevada, the Sacramento Valley was carpeted with wildflowers, wild grasses and tules taller than a man. Oaks rimmed the riverbed, and flocks of waterfowl darkened the sky.
In the ensuing decades, Green traveled the valley as a county surveyor, state legislator and owner-editor of a newspaper.
He watched winter storms swell the 380-mile-long river, sending the Sacramento rushing over its banks and drowning the valley’s lowlands. Inevitably, the drought of summer followed, shriveling crops.
What the valley needed, Green decided, was an irrigation system that tapped the mighty Sacramento. He staked his river claim six months after he became president of the newly incorporated Sacramento Valley Irrigation Co. The rights were passed to Glenn-Colusa when it was formed in 1920.
During the irrigation season Glenn-Colusa’s pumps gulp an average of 25% to 30% of the river as it flows past Hamilton City, dumping it into a 65-mile canal so wide and deep that farm families used to water ski on it, pulled by a rope tied to the back of a pickup truck.
The canal greens an area more than four times the size of San Francisco. Most of the district is planted in medium grain japonica rice, the type used to make sushi rolls. About 60% of the crop is exported to Asia, Europe and the Middle East.
With a bounty of river water to flood fields and hard claypan soil to trap it, the Sacramento Valley is a center of rice growing — the country’s second-largest rice producer after Arkansas. Glenn-Colusa growers cultivate about a fifth of California’s rice acreage.
Rice is one of the thirstiest crops. About three-quarters of the irrigation water sheeting across Glenn-Colusa’s paddies evaporates or transpires from the plants. The rest is drained to other fields, and only a relatively small portion — warm and muddy brown from use — is returned to the river, eventually reaching the delta downstream.
The delta is part of the largest estuary on the West Coast, a tranquil maze of farm islands and serpentine water channels that bears little resemblance to the wetlands settlers drained and put under the plow.
Using it as the state’s primary north-to-south transfer point for water supplies has distorted the natural rhythm of tidal and freshwater flows that shaped the delta ecosystem. Government dams upstream have changed the timing and volume of inflows, diminishing the variability in salinity that delta species evolved with.
And the mammoth federal and state pumping operations that send water south are so powerful that they make some delta waterways flow backward, pulling fish and larvae to their deaths.
Enormous quantities of fresh water that would naturally pour into the delta from the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers and their tributaries never get there. The flows are tapped upstream by cities — including San Francisco, Sacramento and Redding — and the big irrigation districts.
Estimates of annual upstream use developed by UC Davis researcher Bill Fleenor indicate that from 2000 to 2009, it outstripped average southbound exports by about 70%.
“We’re taking huge amounts of water out of the delta watershed, which means that’s water that’s not getting to the delta, not flowing through the delta and not sustaining fish and wildlife,” said Doug Obegi, an attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council.
“We simply promise too much water to too many people,” added Obegi, whose organization has waged a so-far unsuccessful legal crusade to loosen the grip of senior rights holders on Sacramento River flows.
As important as seniority is, it doesn’t always reign supreme in state water law.
In a 2008 letter to a state task force on the delta, then-Atty. Gen. Jerry Brown concluded that California “has considerable ability to reallocate water when necessary.”
He pointed to the state constitutional provision that water use be “reasonable and beneficial,” a mandate that in recent decades has broadened beyond traditional farm and urban uses to include recreation as well as fish and wildlife protection.
He also noted the public trust doctrine, which was key to the 1983 California Supreme Court ruling that ultimately forced Los Angeles to reduce Eastern Sierra diversions that were harming Mono Lake. The landmark decision recognized that the state’s duty to manage water resources for the public benefit extended to the protection of ecological values.
Yet when it comes to helping the delta, state authorities have shrunk from taking on entrenched senior rights holders.
When the State Water Resources Control Board proposed rules in 1993 that could have reduced upstream use to improve delta conditions, then-Gov. Pete Wilson killed them — a move critics complained was a concession to the agricultural lobby.
“In the past … senior water rights holders had the political power and the water board has been a fairly weak reed,” said Holly Doremus, a UC Berkeley law school professor of environmental regulation.
Junior water users, for their part, generally have chosen to buy supplies from senior diverters rather than pick a nasty legal fight.
The upstream diverters have “gotten away with being left alone,” said Michael Hanemann, a professor of agricultural and resource economics at Berkeley.
“It was a totally crazy system,” Hanemann said of 19th century water claims. “You filed a piece of paper someplace saying I’m diverting water. And nobody was keeping score.”
In 2005, the Natural Resources Defense Council sued the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation over its renewal of contracts with Glenn-Colusa and other senior rights holders in the Sacramento Valley. The environmental group argued that the bureau, which provides irrigation water to much of the Central Valley, failed to take into account the effect of the senior diversions on the downstream delta and its imperiled fish.
Reclamation officials countered that under a 1964 agreement with the rights holders, they had no discretion to change the contracts, which in total entitle the group to draw 2.2 million acre-feet a year from the Sacramento — enough to supply 4.4 million households.
The U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals is now reviewing rulings in the government’s favor.
The water allocation has been cut in only a handful of very dry years, and then only by 25%. Citing the severe state drought, the bureau this year has taken the unprecedented step of slashing the allocation by 60% — a move that Glenn-Colusa and other senior diverters complain is a violation of the 1964 pact.
A potentially greater threat to their historic rights is upcoming action by the state water board. For the first time in nearly two decades, the board is updating water quality standards for the delta. The Legislature also has directed the board to set environmental goals for the amount of water flowing through the delta and out to San Francisco Bay.
Either action could force senior diverters to curtail their water use, according to board attorneys.
Those are fighting words to Bransford.
“There’s constant worry about the future and our ability to continue to farm,” he said on a bright morning, standing next to his rice fields on the outskirts of the little town of Williams.
An avid birder, Bransford pointed to nesting black terns, white-faced ibises and stilts hunting for snacks in the green-bearded rice paddies. In the distance, the volcanic Sutter Buttes jutted up from the flat valley floor.
“Give us some assurances you’re not going to come up here and take half our water,” he demanded. “You’re talking about the survivability of a community and an area.”