Iowa Public Television


19th Century Water Rights Examined in Drought Stricken California

posted on May 30, 2014

Popular meat processor, Hillshire Brands is at the center of a barnyard brawl.

On Thursday, Tyson Foods, America’s largest meat vendor, offered $6.2 billion for Hillshire, which produces Jimmy Dean sausage and Ball Park Franks.

Tyson’s bid topped a similar offer made two days earlier by rival poultry producer Pilgrim's Pride.

The takeover bids for Hillshire by two major meat processors are being driven, largely, by a desire to own the company’s brand-name products like Jimmy Dean breakfast sandwiches. The convenience foods are more profitable than fresh meat like beef, pork and poultry, as profit margins decline, primarily, due to persistent drought.

Nowhere is that more apparent than in California, where a war is being waged over water.

During a similar drought in the 70s, officials called for the Golden State’s archaic water rights policies to be reformed. Forty years later, however, the reforms still have not been implemented.

19th Century Water Rights Examined in Drought Stricken California

With California locked in third consecutive year of extreme drought, the issue of water rights also is heating up.

Some farmers, however, receive as much water they want through an antiquated system of water allocations that was initially adopted in the 1800s.

Al Montna, California rice farmer: "In a good year, we wouldn't be able to stand here unless we got wet."

 Al Montna is watching his 1,800 acres turn to dust this year because he does not have what are called senior water rights.

A few miles away, however, other rice fields are flush with water because those growers get priority during a drought. That’s because their rights date back to an era when the only claim was done through a notice nailed to a nearby tree. And the arcane laws leave the “have nots” in a precarious position.

Al Montna, California rice farmer: "That's going to affect every community, large and small, in Northern California because we're an agriculture based economy."

Farm workers who depend heavily on the reliable source of water fear their livelihoods also are threatened without policy reforms and major metropolitan areas further also complicate the discussion.

San Francisco, the state’s 4th largest city, gets all the water it wants because of a claim made more than a century ago.

Steven Ritchie, San Francisco Public Utilities Commission: "The system seems cumbersome to a lot of people. It certainly works for San Francisco."

Another concern is who is using water, and the question of accountability was raised by an Associated Press report this week. The article revealed 4,000 companies, farms and landowners with grandfathered rights use trillions of gallons of water annually. That group holds more than half of the claims in California.

According to the A.P., the rights system relies on self-reporting and many records are fraught with errors and years out of date. So officials really do not know if rights holders are over-drawing, or wasting the precious resource.

The established right holders are exempt from drought-related cuts in water allotments this year, despite the fact they are by far, the biggest consumers.

Conservation experts say that water policy needs to change.

Jay Lund, Director UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences: "I think we're going to see a lot of suffering and a lot of legal bills all over the place because we haven't done a particularly good job of quantifying the water rights."

With the epic drought showing no signs of letting up anytime soon, more California fields are destined to turn to dust, unless policy changes.

But some growers feel the answer lies less in the demand side of the equation and more on the supply side.

Al Montna, California rice farmer: "We have to be very diligent about developing more water resources in California."

Tags: California crops fields news water water rights


blog comments powered by Disqus

Comment Policy

Iowa Public Television encourages conversation and debate around issues, events and ideas related to program topics.

  • The editorial staff of Iowa Public Television reserves the right to take down comments it deems inappropriate.
  • Profanity, personal attacks, off-topic posts, advertisements and spam will not be tolerated.

Find out more about's privacy policy and terms of use.