Sunday, March 9, 2014

Emergencies, the public interest, and legal change

Over at Legal Planet the University of California's Richard Frank recently posted "California Enacts Emergency Drought Legislation: State Water Rights Reforms a Key Part of the Legislative Package", in which he notes that the severe drought from which California is suffering this year has apparently "prompted enactment of water reforms that proved impossible just five years ago", in particular increased penalties for illegal diversions and modest regulation of groundwater use. Frank writes:
Let’s hope that these new, modest changes to California water law signal the beginning, rather than the end, of meaningful efforts to reform California’s systems of water rights enforcement and groundwater regulation. Recent political and environmental history demonstrates that it often takes a major crisis to motivate government decision-makers to enact often long-overdue reforms. For that reason, perhaps some good can come out of drought conditions that currently hang like a meteorological sword of Damocles over California’s economy and environment.
Having spent the last week in California archives, working on my research on the history of water law, I was struck by one of the two great sensations known to all historical researchers--the feeling that it's all happened before. (The other one is the feeling that things back then were really different.)

Specifically, at UC Riverside's Water Resources Archives (an incredibly rich collection with a friendly and helpful staff) I came across a document authored by S.T. Harding--like Frank, a UC professor--nearly a hundred years ago, entitled "Effect of War Emergency Conditions on Irrigation Water Rights and Service". 1918, the year in which Harding wrote the piece, was a year not only of increased demands for California food production, due to the World War, but also of drought, like 2014. Harding wrote:
from the Sidney T. Harding Papers,
Box 26, Item 134-6
Water Resources Collections and Archives,
University of California, Riverside Libraries
The situation was met... by methods which would have been considered drastic and practically unenforceable under normal conditions but which under the war emergency conditions existing in 1918 were not only acquiesced in by the parties affected but were carried out largely with their assistance and co-operation.
Harding wondered whether the emergency modification of the rules of California's water-rights regime would have lasting effects:
It is difficult to see how the general results can be anything but beneficial in the future of water right development. The present experience in going directly to the result desired even though the method may be new, will tend to remove prejudices against changes which are based merely on their newness. The use of public authority to handle matters involving public water supplies as in 1918 brings to the front the public interest in the utilization of the water resources and the right of the public interest to be more largely considered in the future than it has been in at least some cases in the past. It is to be hoped that a greater public interest in such matters may be maintained in the future after the war emergency has passed which will be exercised not as under necessity in 1918 to the injury of some individuals but on a broad basis to secure the greatest general benefits from the use of the available water supplies.
California's water law did undergo some important developments in the 1920s, though I believe that the extent that this may have been due to the effects of war and drought has not been explored.

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