An escalating competition for California's limited water
supply could cause a redefinition of water rights and a host
of lawsuits, a private property rights advocate contends.
The outcomes from such environmental initiatives as Delta
Vision, the Bay Delta Conservation Plan and others could also
increase pressure to send more Northern California water
south, asserts Susan Sutton, of Maxwell, who helped found a
nonprofit organization that assists families with water rights
In a newsletter essay last week, Sutton zeroed in on
statements in a recent primer by the Legislative Analyst's
Office that the "reasonable use" requirement under the state's
water rights system should be updated to reflect the scarcity
"It is in the interest of the state to undertake a concerted
effort to realign the water rights system to better reflect
modern needs and circumstances," reads the primer, published
in October. "For example, this could be done by accounting for
the potential for water conservation and water use efficiency
in managing water rights."
Sutton argues that if the legislature were to try to redefine
"beneficial use," its definition might well favor urban areas
to the detriment of agriculture and other rural rights
holders, particularly in the north.
"I think the net-net is it's all going to end up in the
courts," Sutton said in an interview. "It's all going to end
up in lawsuits.
"We want to do our part" to conserve water and protect fish,
she said. "But we also want to do what we can do to protect
our water rights."
Before retiring and starting her own firm, SAS Strategies and
Perspectives, Sutton was a founding member and grant-writer
for the Family Water Alliance, which works to preserve
agriculture and property rights.
Her observations come as a debate is emerging in California
over the implementation of water rights. Earlier this month,
landowners in Siskiyou County accused the state Department of
Fish and Game of imposing new restrictions on water rights as
part of a watershed-wide permitting program aimed at
protecting threatened Coho salmon.
Sutton said that some 80 percent of water diversions in the
north state are screened, so "we're doing our best" to protect
the imperiled fish. If beneficial uses are redefined, she
said, the new definition could conceivably rule out any number
of uses - perhaps even water for swimming pools.
"Maybe there are certain crops that have maybe a perception of
not being a beneficial use," she said.
Sutton urged people to maintain communication with their local
water districts and stay informed of the issues. She suggested
that the Endangered Species Act could be amended to take into
consideration public health and safety, although she
acknowledged such a revision is unlikely right now.
"It might open up the ability to move water a little freer,"
she said. "Right now the Supreme Court has made the
determination that we are going to protect species at any
cost. ... It won't make a difference if 25 million people in
Southern California are without water."
Sutton also called for more water storage in California, and
said perhaps fish populations could be increased through
"I think there's a whole bunch of viable options out there if
the people of California are willing to accept them," she
Staff writer Tim Hearden is based in Shasta Lake. E-mail: