A racist past and hotter future are testing Western water like never before

As droughts persist in Western states, a century-old water system, criticized as inherently racist, is under scrutiny for its capacity to sustainably manage water supplies with worsening droughts on the horizon.

Established hierarchy: Western water laws, following a “first in time, first in right” principle, generally favor older claims.
* In shortage situations, those with newer rights must cut back first, potentially entirely, before older rights are impacted.
* However, these laws have historically excluded Native American tribes, who were the first residents but are often without recognized rights to the water.

Current debates: The system’s fairness and future suitability are being questioned as climate change exacerbates water shortages.
* California lawmakers are considering proposals to regulate the oldest water users, who have long asserted their rights cannot be limited by the state.
* Both cities like San Francisco, and farming districts, with senior water rights are opposing these initiatives, arguing that billions of dollars invested into the water system would be jeopardized.

Historical injustices: Native American Tribes are advocating for a system overhaul.
* Tribes like the Winnemem Wintu in Northern California express their exclusion from existing water rights as a result of historical atrocities.
* The tribe’s traditional land was flooded in the 1940s when California built the Shasta Dam, creating the largest reservoir in the state.

Legal reform: New state bills under consideration could increase regulator authority over senior rights holders.
* These bills aim to permit more investigatory powers into water use by senior rights holders, increase fines for illegal water usage and mandate water use curtailment during shortages.
* Many senior rights holders oppose these changes, arguing that their rights predate the establishment of California’s regulatory water agency.

The way forward: The need for reform is being acknowledged more widely.
* Some argue for the creation of a fairer water allocation system, with transparent rules understandable to all.
* Tribes are now included in key negotiations for the future of water use on the Colorado River, indicating progression towards inclusive and equitable decision-making processes.

View original article on NPR

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