California is reexamining decades-old claims about its water


California's water supplies are distributed in a way that may seem haphazard. The rules that determine who gets how much water date back more than a century and form a confusing patchwork across the state.

For all its complexity, the system worked quite well for decades and allowed California to develop a huge agricultural industry that fuels its economy and feeds the United States. But with the pressures of climate change and extreme droughts on the rise, the state is being forced to take a hard look at its water supplies. Regulators on Tuesday approved new rules allowing wastewater to be purified into drinking water, making California the second state to do so. (Colorado was first).

My colleague Raymond Zhong, a climate reporter, recently investigated water problems in California and how the state is reexamining water rights after decades of weak oversight. In some parts of California, officials are asking farmers to provide historical records supporting their water claims; In others, regulators are considering limiting supply to ranchers who have been diverting large quantities from streams.

I spoke with Raymond about his reports. Here is our conversation, edited and condensed.

Why did you want to focus on water rights in California?

I first became interested during the severe storms last winter. After three years of drought, billions of gallons of water suddenly gushed from the rivers. However, irrigation districts that wanted to get a share still found it difficult. The reason, I learned, was the state's water rights system: Even when there is too much to go around, the system sets limits.

At first, I imagined this meant that regulators had a big spreadsheet that recorded everyone's allocations in an orderly manner: here's your name, here's your place in line, here's how much you can take and when. I soon discovered that this was not exactly the case: Yes, everyone has assignments. But the way they are detailed and enforced may be the opposite of what is mandated.

What did you learn from your report?

One of the big problems is that California really has two water rights systems. The state water board began issuing permits and licenses in 1914. That's a system. But many major farms and irrigation districts claimed water before 1914, and the board has much more limited authority to regulate them. Basically, in the same river basin, where everyone shares the same supplies, the State has jurisdiction over some users but not others.

For this reason and more, it is “surprisingly difficult” for the water board to manage supply by shutting off people during a drought, as Erik Ekdahl, the board official responsible for the shutoff, says.

How has such a messy system persisted for so long in a state with so many water needs?

For most of California's history, you could probably say the system basically worked. Sure, there were droughts. Sometimes people fought over water. But the problems were rare and isolated enough that the system did not need major repairs.

Now the planet is warming and the state has seen what it's like to go from one prolonged drought to another, with only a few years of respite in between. Additionally, the state's usual backup source during drought, groundwater, is rapidly disappearing. So the pressure on regulators has increased significantly in recent years.

But anything officials can do is also much more difficult now. Each change affects many more people and many more companies than decades ago. Resistance to change can be much more powerful.

Today's tip comes from David Hayashida, who lives in Greenbrae:

“San Francisco is home to several stunning tiled public staircases; My favorites are the 16th Avenue Tile Steps. This mosaic staircase was designed and fabricated by local artists Aileen Barr and Colette Crutcher, is located in the Golden Gate Heights neighborhood, and is maintained by many dedicated volunteers.

There are 163 steps, constructed from more than 2,000 hand-made tiles and 75,000 fragments of mirrors, tiles and stained glass, with a theme progressing from beneath the sea at the bottom, to the moon and sun at the top. Flanking the stairs are gardens of native plants and succulents.

For an invigorating experience that combines art viewing and exercise, survey the 163 steps as you ascend the 90 feet to 15th Avenue. Once there, climb 28 more concrete steps to the upper level of this two-level street and walk to nearby Grandview Park, then climb an additional 144 wooden steps to the top of the park. Your reward will be wonderful views of San Francisco, the Marin Headlands and the Pacific Ocean. Luckily the return trip is much easier!”

Tell us about your favorite places to visit in California. Email your suggestions to We will share more in future editions of the newsletter.

What do you expect in 2024? Graduations, big birthdays, trips to new places?

Tell us your hopes for the new year at Please include your full name and the city you live in.

Thirteen California restaurants made Esquire's list of the nation's 50 best new restaurants, and chefs across the state earned praise for their exacting technique, elegant seafood dishes, and fusion cuisine.

Among the lively new dining establishments: Auro, a fine dining destination in Napa Valley; Burdell, an unusual combination of soul food and California cuisine in Oakland; and Dalida, a restaurant in San Francisco whose menu pays homage to the entire Eastern Mediterranean region.

“Honest innovation doesn't always work in the kitchen, but when it does, it's like rocket fuel for the soul,” writes Kevin Sintumuang, Esquire's lifestyle and culture director, in the foreword to the list, adding: “Consider this your map.”

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