The Biggest Water Transfers in American History

Editorial: The feds can curb a foolish California water giveaway

On Friday, March 25, Governor Jerry Brown granted California the second-largest water transfer in American history (after the Colorado River) and promised to use the transfer to clean the state’s aquifers. Yet this is just the latest in a series of giveaways made by the current federal administration, which is so quick to give away as much as it can to states in need and then dole out the money to the states to carry out the promises.

The most recent round of deals include agreements on the Great Lakes, the Pacific Rim, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska, oil extraction on public lands in North Dakota, and nuclear waste at Hanford in Washington. In his State of the State in January, Governor Brown announced that he would give his administration the California water from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. (See Brown’s press release here.) His executive order was promptly vetoed by the Obama administration, but it’s unclear whether it was because the administration doesn’t want California to use the water, or because of the amount of money (more than $30 billion) the administration promises to give away to states.

So far, these are the biggest giveaways:

California must receive 1/3 of the water from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta (about 160,000 acre-feet), but only 1 acre-foot can be diverted to the state with state water. At 1 acre-foot, California could use between 20,000 and 30,000 acre-feet per year. (Though the state can also sell any extra water to other California water users at $0.45–0.50 per acre-foot.)

At 9.7 billion acre-feet, California is the second-largest water user in the United States. (In 2013, it used 31.4 billion acre-feet.)

At 1 million acre-feet, California can meet the needs of 16.6 million people per year.

There are other potential problems with the California transfer, however.

Even if the transfer is successful, the federal government can still limit water use. The Bureau of Reclamation can change California’s allocation

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