Water in California has always involved conflicts: north versus south, urban dwellers versus farmers, fish versus people.

With so many opposing forces, the state's policies to manage where water flows and who uses it are a patchwork of laws, court decisions and decades-old rights agreements. With no uniform distribution system and with global warming and population growth stretching water supply, California is at a breaking point, many researchers say.

"There's a broad consensus that the current government structure is dysfunctional and unacceptable," said Richard Frank, executive director of the California Center for Law, Energy & the Environment at UC Berkeley. "There's far less agreement on what the solution is."

Frank said a dramatically changed governing structure for the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and new environmental policies "to fix decisions made decades ago" are needed. He is part of a group of UC Berkeley researchers preparing a white paper with recommendations for reforming state governance of the Delta, a major source of California's water. A grant from the Berkeley Institute of the Environment is funding the report, which is being written by Frank, Berkeley law school professor Holly Doremus and environmental planning professors Matt Kondolf and Robert Twiss and will be made public in September.

"It cries out for an interdisciplinary approach," Frank said. "We at the university are well equipped to do that."

Support for decision-makers

Researchers throughout the University of California are helping reform environmental and government policies to combat the effect of drought, increased population and global warming on the state's water supply.

Frank and UC Berkeley environmental engineering professor Raymond Seed served on Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's Delta Vision panel that called for restoring the ecosystem, creating a more reliable water supply, promoting conservation and establishing an oversight commission to manage the Delta. A package of five water bills working their way through the state Legislature has many of the same goals as Delta Vision's strategic plan.

Nearly every UC campus has a research center or programs dedicated to water issues. In addition, the UC Center for Water Resources housed at UC Riverside is one of the 50 (one for every state) federally designated research institutions mandated by the 1964 Water Resources Research Act. The center supports water policy and management research inside and outside UC through grants. It also collects historic documents and research related to water topics through the Water Resources Center Archives (located at UC Berkeley).

"I can always find what I need somehow in the (UC) system," said Alf Brandt, principal consultant for the state Assembly's Committee on Water, Parks and Wildlife. "I've been very impressed. Often UC is the neutral party that gives us an independent view of things."

Not all water created equal

By most accounts, climate change is reducing precipitation, which, along with a growing population, is putting pressure on the state's water supply. This makes the problem of deciding who gets water even more contentious.

"That's been the big question throughout California's history," said David Feldman, professor and chairman of the Department of Planning, Policy and Design at UC Irvine's School of Social Ecology and a faculty member of the campus's Urban Water Research Center.

Feldman's research area is water policy and social equity, and he is writing a book about how the control of water affects global environmental justice.

Cheap, subsidized water in California encourages population growth in dry, urban areas, which in turn drives up demand, Feldman said. He advocates reforms that would decrease demand and wasteful practices (landscaping accounts for about half of urban water use), encourage conservation and promote recycling. He also said that the way policies are enacted must be inclusive and not just benefit those with the most power or money, as has happened in past.

Decades of water wars

Californians have been fighting over water for decades as the population centers in the San Francisco Bay Area and Southern California boomed.

"It's a long, fairly complicated history," said Bob Wilkinson, director of the Water Policy Program at UC Santa Barbara's Donald Bren School of Environmental Science & Management. "Environmental consideration came very late in the game. Until a few decades ago, it was legal to de-water a river."

In 1923 the O'Shaughnessy Dam flooded Yosemite's Hetch Hetchy Valley to supply water to the Bay Area, over the objections of environmentalist John Muir and the Sierra Club. And protests have dogged the Los Angeles Aqueduct for decades over water diversions from Owens Valley and Mono Lake. Under the Colorado River Compact signed in 1922, water is transported by canals to Southern California. Canals also divert Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta water to the Central Valley's farms and to Southern California and Bay Area cities.

Managing supply

"California has enough rainfall to satisfy all its needs. The problem is, it's geographically mal-distributed," said Steven Erie, a UC San Diego political science professor and author of "Beyond Chinatown: The Metropolitan Water District, Growth, and the Environment in Southern California." "Much of the water is in the north. The population is in the south."

Historically, California has dealt with increased water demand by creating more supply through canals, dams and reservoirs, said David Sunding, a professor of agricultural and resource economics at UC Berkeley and co-director of the Berkeley Water Center.

"We're really reaching the limit of that," he said. "What's happening in the Delta is an indication. The ecosystem is collapsing."

The pumping of water out of the Delta has been blamed for the decline of fish species. Recent court-ordered pumping restrictions may help the fish but are pinching water supplies for humans.

Sunding, whose expertise is water supply, pricing and efficiency, said setting up a marketplace to sell water rights could alleviate supply problems. Guidelines for what users are entitled to, how water is traded and a marketplace for trading would need to be created.

"If we have a crisis in water, it's really more of a management crisis than a scarcity crisis," Sunding said.