If every drop counts, Calif. needs a crackdown on illegal water theft

For most California water users, every drop is scrutinized, accounted for, and paid for, but not for all. It’s time for regulators to get serious on illegal diversions of water.

In a year when water is in short supply, everyone suffers. Sacrifices are felt in the environment, in food and fiber production, and at your tap.

The call for everyone to do their part in conservation is a headliner and mindful water use is on the conscious of most people as we experience one of the driest years on record.


Much discussion and debate rages about the fresh water that needlessly makes its way to the Pacific Ocean. But, not all water makes it to the Pacific Ocean.

Some is pumped south to millions of people and millions of acres of farmland, and also for use on thousands of acres of environmentally protected areas.

And the last category of water is not a lawful category of water at all.

It is a category called unauthorized diversions within the Delta.  Another term used by some to describe it is “illegal.”

For most water users, every drop is scrutinized, accounted for, and paid for, but not for all. 

As a result of the continued monitoring of statewide hydrologic conditions, diversions, and regulatory actions, the State Water Resources Control Board appears to have had an epiphany, and has begun to issue emergency curtailment orders on junior water rights holders, while also taking aim at more senior water rights holders.

What’s unknown, is whether they plan to take action against illegal diversions from the Delta.  

Perhaps that will happen later, or not.  

If history is any guide, it won’t be dealt with.  But in a dry year like the state is experiencing now, it’s becoming harder and harder to ignore.

What all these proposed actions mean is about as clear as mud, but in the coming weeks, it’s expected to become a bit clearer.  

But to be sure, the theft of water should always matter and be dealt with seriously.

Illegal diversions in the Delta are not monitored, metered, or checked in any way, by anyone. The disappearance of this water from the system harms fish, the environment, and never reaches its rightful and lawful end-use.  

While everyone is being asked to conserve, water agencies throughout the state are forced to make operational changes sometimes daily, and farmers south of the Delta fallow thousands of acres, remove permanent crops, and continue to be forced to use groundwater, some are not sacrificing at all.

They are taking water that was previously stored water, intended and paid for by State and Federal contractors.

How bad are illegal diversions?

Every day, the Department of Water resources issues a report called the Executive Operations Summary. It is a simple one-page report that outlines how much water enters the Delta, how much water is “outflows” to the ocean, and how much water is diverted for human use.

It lists other very useful information, but these are the numbers that matter in this case and this data is available for anyone to see on their website.

Let’s use Thursday’s report as an example.

On July 22, 2021, Inflow to the Delta through the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers was about 9,300 cubic-feet per second (CFS).  

This equates to about 18,440 acre-feet of water during the past 24 hour period. So, 18,440 acre-feet of water entered the Delta from our reservoirs, and given the dry hydrology in 2021, there is no other place from that water to be coming from than from upstream storage. 

The next important data point shows how much water going through the Delta and continuing to the ocean, which is 3,700 CFS, equaling about 7,337 acre feet in the same time period.

This leaves 11,103 acre-feet in the Delta.

From that, we remove lawful diversions that are pumped south for millions of people and millions of acres of farmland, which during the same time period, amounted to 1,150 CFS, or about 2,280 acre feet.

We are left with a number of 8,823 acre-feet of water that “disappeared” in just 24 hours.  This is water that vanishes, and in most water years it goes unnoticed.

But to be sure, that water doesn’t magically disappear, it’s being diverted, at best inappropriately, and at worst, illegally, by water users in the Delta that have no right to that water.

Thursday alone, almost 9,000 acre-feet of water disappeared.

This is water that has been paid for, had a name, and water that would have benefitted the environment at every point passed its illegal taking. This has been happening for a long time, with no interruption by enforcement agencies and must end immediately.

If Millerton Lake were completely empty, at yesterday’s rate, it would take less than two months to completely fill it!

Immediate action by the State Water Resources Control Board is critical and very significant.

Every water user in the state is being asked to conserve or being forced to cut back.

Millions of acres of farmland have received a 0 percent allocation while millions more have received only 5 percent allocation.

With thousands of acre-feet of water disappearing on a daily basis to areas with no right to it, revisiting those lawful allocations should be necessary if no appropriate action is promptly taken.

California’s management of water is often a confusing web of regulations and engineering.

This isn’t a complicated crisis: taking something that someone else has paid for is wrong – period. And it needs to end.

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