California to Strengthen Measurement of Agricultural Water Use to Improve Efficiency

Earlier this week, California’s Office of Administrative Law disapproved proposed agricultural water measurement regulations that would have exempted major water users in California from complying with requirements of the Water Conservation Act of 2009 (SB 7x 7).  NRDC had repeatedly commented that these exemptions were unlawful and were bad public policy, and that all large agricultural water districts should have to implement the same basic practice of measuring the water they supply to farms.  OAL largely agreed with several of NRDC's arguments and rejected the draft regulation, requiring the Department of Water Resources to rewrite the regulation to ultimately close loopholes they had created.

By way of background, the Water Conservation Act of 2009 is best known for the requirement that all urban water suppliers increase their efficiency by 20% by 2020.  Although the Act did not include a similar quantifiable requirement for improved efficiency from agricultural suppliers, the Act included several requirements for improving agricultural water use efficiency, including a requirement (Water Code section 10608.48(b)) that all large agricultural water suppliers measure the quantity of water delivered to the farm gate and adopt a pricing structure that is based in part of the volume of water that is delivered.  

Nearly all urban water suppliers in California require water meters and have a volumetric pricing structure (pay more for using more, pay less for using less).  Adoption of these two practices has improved water use efficiency by 20% in many communities – after all, you can’t conserve what you don’t measure, and volumetric pricing creates an economic incentive to conserve water and use it more efficiently. 

There are still a few urban water suppliers (such as Folsom and Sacramento) that are still installing meters and implementing volumetric pricing, but the vast majority of Californians have water meters to measure how much water they’re using.  

In contrast, many agricultural districts do not have accurate water measurement devices to track how much water they deliver to farms.   With nearly 9 million acres of irrigated farmland, and more than 30 million acre feet of water diverted or pumped each year for agriculture, improving agricultural efficiency is critical to sustaining California’s water supply and farm economy.   

While many farmers have made progress in improving efficiency, reducing water use, and increasing yields, there are still substantial gains to be made.   The State’s 2009 Water Plan Update estimated that improving agricultural water use efficiency could save up to 1 million acre feet of water per yearBut improved efficiency isn’t just about reducing water use, and it won’t necessarily reduce water withdrawals. Improved efficiency can increase the amount of crops that are produced with the same amount of water, reduce the amount of agricultural runoff, reduce groundwater pumping and energy costs, and yield other benefits to both farmers and the environment.

But accurately measuring water deliveries at the farm gate is critical to improving efficiency.  The 2009 Water Plan Update (page 2-23) concluded that, “Lack of data, mainly farm-gate irrigation water delivery data, is an obstacle for assessing irrigation efficiencies and planning further improvement” in agricultural water use efficiency.  The Water Conservation Act of 2009 filled this gap by requiring all large suppliers to measure water deliveries at the farm gate. 

However, the regulation that the California Water Commission adopted included numerous exceptions from these basic requirements, including an exemption for federal contractors and an exemption for many rice farmers.  To its credit, the Department of Water Resources had warned that these exemptions, particularly the exemption for federal contractors, was probably unlawful, but the California Water Commission (including two members who were appointed by the prior Administration and who no longer serve on the Commission) decided to allow these exemptions. 

Now that OAL has rejected this regulation, the State has to revise the regulation to be consistent with the requirements of the Water Conservation Act.  The revised regulation should not include exemptions from the law, but instead should treat all water suppliers equally.  We should learn more at the meeting of the California Water Commission later this month, but I’m optimistic that the State will do the right thing and eliminate these exemptions in order to ensure all large agricultural water suppliers accurately measure water deliveries to the farm gate.   Requiring accurate measurement of farm gate deliveries by all large water suppliers will be be an important step towards improving agricultural water use efficiency, which is essential to sustain California agriculture and our environment.