02/26/2020

Key Conflicts Roil California’s Ever-Evolving Waterscape

As 2018 was winding down, one of California’s leading newspapers suggested, via a front-page, banner-headlined article, that the drought that had plagued the state for much of this decade may be returning.

Just weeks later, that same newspaper was reporting that record-level midwinter storms were choking mountain passes with snow, rapidly filling reservoirs and causing serious local flooding.

Neither was incorrect at the time, but their juxtaposition underscores the unpredictable nature of California’s water supply.

The fickleness of nature has been compounded by a decades-long, multi-front struggle among hundreds of water agencies and other interested parties over allocations of the precious liquid, not unlike the perpetual religious and ethnic wars that consumed medieval Europe.

Adding another layer of complexity, the conflicts over California’s water supply are often proxy wars for land-use disputes, involving such issues as whether the state’s chronic shortage of housing should be addressed by continuing to carve farmlands into subdivisions or shift to a high-density mode that builds up rather than out. Water supply is very often the decisive factor in land-use decisions, thanks to state laws requiring developers to prove they can obtain enough water to serve their projects.

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