California’s Water Rights Records Are a Long Way From Being Digital

Forget it, Jake — it's the digital age

Livingston Stone National Fish Hatchery
Livingston Stone National Fish Hatchery in California.
Pacific Southwest Region USFWS

This year saw the western United States experience an ominous abundance of drought conditions. It’s another reason to be concerned about climate change — as well as a harbinger of the fact that water rights are going to be increasingly important in the coming years. (Cue a growing sense that Paolo Bacigalupi’s novel The Water Knife is going to read like nonfiction before long.)

Both water rights and how that water is used will be playing a much larger role in local politics in the near future. But there’s an alarming addendum to that — namely, the methods by which records of water rights are kept and maintained. As a new Los Angeles Times story reveals, California’s system of keeping track of them hasn’t been updated in a very long while.

The article opens with a description of the California State Water Resources Control Board, where one analyst is described as “a custodian of millions of pieces of paper” — some of them over a century old. Some water claims date back to the days of the gold rush, and the lack of a standardized system makes it especially hard to work out certain rights issues.

This system might end up modernized before long; the article notes that California’s budget allocated $33 million to modernize the system this year. But implementing that will still take plenty of time and labor, especially at a time when water rights are increasingly important. If it can be accomplished, this feat could offer a better picture of the state’s environmental history — but that remains a big if.

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