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California Farms’ Water Use Still Unclear, Despite New Reporting Rules

While some other states monitor water deliveries to farms in real time, California has allowed irrigation districts to submit annual reports on paper. According to one recent analysis, fewer than half are even doing that much.

Written by Matt Weiser Published on Read time Approx. 8 minutes
A farmworker patrols an irrigation ditch in California’s Imperial Valley. Such ditches are used by irrigation districts to distribute water to their farm customers. California passed a law in 2007 requiring irrigation districts to annually report water deliveries to farms beginning in 2012. But multiple changes in the law have created a confusing patchwork of requirements.Brent Stirton/Getty Images

A new program in California aimed at tracking agricultural water consumption is off to a bumpy start, highlighting the challenges of monitoring an industry that has historically enjoyed limited oversight.

Agriculture is the biggest consumer of water in the West, with many states using more than 70 percent of developed freshwater supplies for agriculture. So you would think state governments watch water consumption on farms carefully to look for conservation opportunities. In fact, some do not.

California generates more farm revenue than any other state. Yet until recently there was no requirement to report agricultural water consumption. That changed in 2007, when a new state law required irrigation districts to file annual reports on water delivered to their farm customers, beginning in 2012.

The program became known as “farm-gate” reporting, because irrigation districts must document monthly deliveries to the diversion gates where water leaves the district’s distribution canal and moves onto private farmland.

However, follow-up laws confused the rules, and there has never been any penalty for failing to comply.

As a result, only 48 percent of irrigation districts complied with the law in 2016, the most recent reporting year, according to the state Department of Water Resources, which oversees the program.

In addition, tech-savvy California did not require irrigation districts to file their reports online. Instead, it allowed them to send paper forms by mail. And the law did not require the DWR to post any of the data online. So it did not do so until May of this year, when it launched a crude beta-stage website that includes only some of the data reported so far.

“This is the agency that’s responsible for managing, I would argue, the most precious natural resource in the state,” said Arohi Sharma, a water policy analyst at the Natural Resources Defense Council. “The agency has the ability to fill all of these gaps. It’s just a matter of flexing its muscles and holding water districts accountable.”

Sharma is lead author of a new NRDC report critical of the state’s program. In its analysis, compliance with the law was even lower than the DWR estimate. Using DWR data, the group focused on 123 “large” irrigation districts those with at least 10,000 irrigated acres in order to compare consistent data. It found only 30 percent of these districts submitted water delivery data in 2016.

“While these numbers are obviously not satisfactory, we think it’s going to improve because of the changes in the legislation,” said Manucher Alemi, a DWR policy adviser on water use efficiency, who manages the program. “These things take time. We are making progress.”

The data available on the state’s website also contains errors. Anthea Hansen, general manager of Del Puerto Water District, said she has filed the water delivery reports every year since the requirement began. But only one from 2014 is posted online, giving the impression the district is out of compliance. And that record shows the 2014 report was submitted in April 2018, suggesting it was filed late.

That appears to be a data entry error, because the DWR website shows 2014 reports from other irrigation districts were also submitted in April 2018.

“Last year, DWR did a report to the Legislature, and our name popped up as being delinquent,” said Hansen, whose district irrigates some 45,000 acres in the Modesto area. “And I was quite taken aback, because I don’t like our name to pop up in a negative light on anything. We strive to do everything right here.”

DWR officials say they send annual reminders by letter and email to encourage irrigation districts to submit the required data. But Hansen said she has never received one.

Farm gates like this one in Firebaugh, California, control the flow of water in irrigation canals. They’re also the point at which the state’s irrigation districts are supposed to measure annual water deliveries to farms. But fewer than half are meeting the annual reporting requirement, and the state Department of Water Resources has limited enforcement power. (ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images)

“I don’t think it’s so much that water agencies can’t or don’t want to do it, she said. It could be they don’t know or forgot. It’s not a real highly publicized thing.

Alvar Escriva-Bou, a water policy research fellow at the Public Policy Institute of California, called the state’s approach a “bottom-up” method of water accounting. That’s because it relies on good-faith reporting by water users at the end of the distribution system.

“When there’s not good oversight, you have to be really careful on what users tell you,” he said, “because they just fill out the form and send it in. You need good oversight to rely on these requirements.”

Escriva-Bou was the lead author of a 2016 study that examined California’s water accounting systems. It includes an exhaustive technical appendix, illuminating methods used by nearly every other Western state.

He said Colorado and Idaho are good examples of what he calls top-down water accounting. In both cases, the state collects its own data on water distribution by maintaining hundreds of measurement devices on irrigation canals. Irrigators are not required to send in any reports, because the state gathers the data itself in many cases using real-time sensors linked to state computers by telemetry devices.

Both states also maintain comprehensive information portals, offering public access to a vast trove of current information on water distribution and water rights.

California offers good data on water movement by major state and federal plumbing systems, but very little at the local level.

“Sometimes centralized systems can help, especially during droughts, and we don’t have that in California,” Escriva-Bou said. “We struggled during the last drought to know exactly how much water we have, and how much water farmers were using.”

The California farm water reporting program is governed by no fewer than three laws. In some ways, each has clarified the requirements. In other ways, they have added complications.

The farm-gate reporting requirement first came into effect in 2007 with the passage of Assembly Bill 1404. It required irrigation districts serving 2,000 or more acres to measure water deliveries according to “best professional practices,” which were never defined. They were required to report the data annually to the state, starting in 2012, according to “water year.” For Hansen’s district that is March through February.

In 2009, a comprehensive water law (Senate Bill X7-7) added requirements for districts serving more than 25,000 acres. These larger districts were directed to measure and report water deliveries according to standards developed by the DWR, and the reporting period was switched to calendar year.

It took the DWR three years to develop those standards, and the first reporting year was 2013. The requirements called for the water delivery data to be reported on a paper form, with email submission as an option.

The latest changes were imposed on May 31 when Governor Jerry Brown signed Assembly Bill 1668. Starting January 1, 2019, irrigation districts must report their water deliveries according to groundwater basin. Some large irrigation districts may encompass four or five basins, which means they must file four or five reports.

For the first time, this new law requires water delivery reports to be filed online.

“The requirements have been evolving and there has been a lack of clarity on what districts have been required to do,” said Mike Wade, executive director of the California Farm Water Coalition. “As a moving target, it was hard to keep up.”

None of these laws allows the DWR to fine or penalize water districts that miss deadlines or fail to file.

However, the 2009 law did allow the DWR to use its grantmaking power as a hammer: irrigation districts with service areas between 10,000 acres and 25,000 acres are not eligible to receive state grants for water projects unless they submit annual water delivery reports.

“Our only leverage is through encouragement and incentives for compliance,” Alemi said. “And we don’t have the resources to monitor every one of them all the time. So we just communicate with them and tell them when it is due.”

In short, the mosaic of laws has saddled the DWR with enforcing three different sets of requirements, depending on the size of the irrigation district.

One result is that the data gathered from irrigation districts so far is not consistent. Some reflects a calendar year, some a water year. Some is on paper, and some is electronic.

“The earliest data is not being posted, simply because we’re trying to verify accuracy,” Alemi said. “And that’s taking time because there was some confusion around the change to calendar year.”

There is also some question about how useful the data will be when it does get compiled.

The law requires irrigation districts to report monthly deliveries to farm gates – the points where water leaves the district’s distribution canal and flows onto private farmland. Each record shows the total number of farm gates and total water volume delivered to those gates each month. The records do not show how much was diverted at each gate, or how the water was used on each farm.

“I think it can be a valuable tool and help improve management and tighten standards down, so people are assured they’re doing a good job,” said Wade. “But I don’t know, in the big scheme of things, that it’s going to change a lot in terms of our understanding of water supply in California.”

The records also say nothing about return flow. This is the water not consumed by crops that may run off the field and return to a stream. Idaho collects this information, but California does not.

Knowing return flows, if any, is important to determine agriculture’s net effect on fisheries and aquatic habitat. And if it is known that return flows are augmenting streamflow, said Escriva-Bou, it may also avoid the pain of water diversion curtailments during drought.

Even so, Alemi said the state’s data collection program will lead to useful reforms.

“It helps us to understand what the agricultural demand is, and also project how we are going to close the gap between supply and demand in the future,” he said.

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