SANTA CRUZ COUNTY (KPIX 5) — California’s blistering heat has spared wildfires and is worsening what could be a record drought. While some are bracing for severe water rationing, others with certain privileges can continue to use as much water as they want for free.

Lewis Erickson, 85, raises angus steers on his eight acres in Santa Cruz. He also grows flowers, has a lawn, and tends to a vegetable garden.

Erickson lives on a fixed income. How can he afford to keep his land so lush and green, when Santa Cruz is rationing water and issuing fines? The answer runs through his land.

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It’s called Branciforte Creek. The stream cuts through his property before it flows into the City of Santa Cruz. Using a small pump, Erickson irrigates with creek water. He uses 4,000-6,000 gallons a month for free.

“If you want to irrigate with city water, would be so expensive you just couldn’t afford to do it,” Erickson said.

Erickson’s water use is legal. He holds riparian rights, the right to use water that flows past or on your land. These valuable old rights came with his property.

“You know I appreciate what I’ve got,” Erickson said.

According to the New California Water Atlas, more than 50,000 Californians, municipalities, water districts and more hold different kinds of water rights. From the Gold Rush of 1849, to the huge state and federal water projects, the laws that govern them reflect more than 150 years of compromise, as well as conflict.

“As Mark Twain once said – water’s for fighting,” said Tom Hicks, an attorney who specializes in water law.

He said even in a drought, folks like Erickson get their water first.

“The riparian often trumps when times get tightest,” Hicks said.

But if these dry times get any tighter, some riparian rights holders may have to turn off the spigot as well.

“Mother nature does its thing no matter what we want to do,” Hicks said.

On Thursday, for the first time in decades, federal officials will release water from the Friant dam east of Fresno. The water is needed satisfy the needs of some farmers who hold some of the oldest water rights in the state.

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