A water right for the environment

A modest proposal, by Brian Gray, Leon Szeptycki, and Buzz Thompson:

Some excerpts from California WaterBlog:

California’s management of water is not working for anyone. Environmental advocates argue that state and federal regulators have set water quality and flow standards that do not adequately protect fish and wildlife, and have not enforced these requirements when they are most needed. Farm and urban interests claim that these regulations have been ineffective and cause unnecessary economic harm. These water users may incur additional cutbacks in their water supplies if regulators conclude that more water is needed to support struggling fish populations, making planning for producers difficult. Amidst this tension, native fish populations in the state have continued to plummet.

This ironic situation—in which both sides believe they bear a disproportionate burden of water shortages and regulatory uncertainty—cries out for reform. We should start by granting the environment a water right.

We recommend that California move away from the long-standing policy of protecting water quality and instream flows by restricting the exercise of water rights, and instead foster a new policy that integrates environmental uses into the water rights system. This reform will increase the efficiency and flexibility of environmental water management and enhance certainty for all water right holders.

The centerpiece of our proposal is the creation of Ecosystem Water Budgets (EWBs) for the state’s principal watersheds. An EWB is a defined quantity of water that would be flexibly allocated to meet ecosystem management objectives. This concept includes several key features:

  • Watershed-based planning. Local water managers, water users, and environmental and fishing groups would draft “watershed ecosystem plans” that would determine the volume of water needed to ensure the ecological integrity of each river system. These plans also would designate priorities for the use of the EWB under varying hydrologic conditions.
  • Functional flows and integrated objectives. The quantity of water assigned to each EWB would be based on a “functional flows” assessment of the most effective flow regime for the ecosystem as a whole. This would stand in marked contrast to the current regulatory approach to environmental protection, which focuses on the needs of individual species by regulating individual stressors such as water diversions and discharges of pollutants.
  • Independent and flexible administration. An independent trustee for the watershed would administer each EWB. The trustee would manage the ecosystem water as an environmental water right with the same prerogatives as other water right holders. The trustee’s primary responsibility would be to deploy the ecosystem water to fulfill the objectives of the watershed ecosystem plan and annual watering plans that define the specific goals of ecosystem water management in light of current and projected hydrologic conditions and water availability.

These changes would promote efficiency and certainty for all water users. Assigning water to the EWBs based on an integrated functional flows approach would direct the available water to the most valuable ecological services within each watershed. And the quantity of ecosystem water would be fixed, providing assurances to other water users in the watershed. The trustees would have to fulfill their stewardship responsibilities within the assigned budget or acquire additional water from other users. Conversely, the assigned ecosystem water would be off-limits to other water users unless they purchase surplus water from the trustees or acquire it through voluntary exchanges.

California’s aquatic ecosystems are fragile and ill-prepared for future droughts and a warming climate. We have a window of opportunity before the next drought strikes to adopt policies that encourage more creative and effective management of water assigned to essential ecological functions.

For the full report, click here.

Published by

Mark Kanazawa

I am Wadsworth A. Williams Professor of Economics at Carleton College, Northfield, MN