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Irrigated agriculture is important to California, and draws upon roughly 80 percent of the state's developed water supplies. The industry produces diverse and important commodities, and employs thousands of people across a broad swath of the state. In recognition of its importance, the Agricultural Water Management Planning Act (Act), which passed California's legislature as part of the Water Conservation Act of 2009, requires large irrigation districts to create comprehensive plans for their water futures. These Agricultural Water Management Plans are required to cover topics such as current and projected water supplies and demands, current and planned water conservation activities, and the impact of climate change on district operations -- all topics that are important to each district and its irrigators, as well as state water managers. These plans must incorporate water measurement to each irrigator and each district's charges to its customers. Consideration is also to be given to water efficiency measures that are to be implemented unless found by a district not to be cost-effective.

According to the California Department of Water Resources (DWR), there are approximately 79 large agricultural water suppliers statewide to which the Act applies. The law requires that each of these suppliers adopt an agricultural water management plan by the end of 2012, submit their second plan by the end of 2015, and update their plans every five years thereafter. Yet by August 2013, only 25 agricultural water suppliers had submitted plans -- a mere 30 percent compliance rate, meaning that there is much work to be done to carry out the law and ensure a sustainable water future for the state.

NRDC and the Pacific Institute reviewed eight of the 25 complete plans and conducted interviews with district staff to assess the districts’ progress and develop suggestions for improving the planning process. The overwhelming noncompliance with the Act makes clear that greater emphasis needs to be placed on both the benefits of planning and the consequences of noncompliance. Some districts asserted that planning requirements were either unclear-or overwhelming, and that more assistance would be needed to meet the 2015 deadline. NRDC and the Pacific Institute suggest that regional peer-to-peer workshops be offered to assist districts with the planning process and the implementation of mandatory and conditional water efficiency measures. DWR should convene an annual conference on agricultural water management best practices, and should also create an online clearinghouse of plans to ensure transparency and encourage data-sharing among districts as they develop plans.

NRDC and the Pacific Institute's analysis of complete plans also highlights areas where sustainable water management practices have offered benefits. For example:

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