California Officials Water Down Farm Water Efficiency Goal

It was called “historic,” “comprehensive,” and “long overdue” when enacted in November 2009.  But as California’s package of legislation to overhaul the state’s water system now moves toward implementation, the good vibrations from the signing ceremony are starting to ring flat.

One of the key elements of the water package was the Water Conservation Act of 2009, a high-profile bill establishing a quantitative target and timeline for urban water use reduction – 20 percent by 2020.  Less attention was paid to the requirements for agricultural water efficiency – perhaps because no catchy alliteration could effectively capture the bill’s modest set of planning requirements for large suppliers of irrigation water.  Although the agricultural sector uses four times the amount of water as all of California’s urban and industrial water users combined, the give and take of the legislative process resulted in little in the way of firm new requirements that would ensure that irrigation water use becomes more efficient.

Except for this:  By July 31, 2012, the state’s largest suppliers of irrigation water are required to begin measuring the volume of water delivered to their customers and to adopt a pricing structure for water customers based – at least in part – on the quantity of water delivered to them.  Seems simple enough.  In fact, some urbanites might find this requirement puzzling – don’t they charge farmers for water already?  Yes, many suppliers, including the always-combative Westlands Water District and others in the San Joaquin Valley, measure water deliveries at the farm gate and charge irrigators for the volume they use.  But many other districts do not measure the volume of water, and instead charge each farmer a flat fee for water service, rather than for the amount of water that an individual irrigator actually receives from the water supplier. 

Without measurement and volumetric billing, a price signal that might otherwise encourage on-farm water conservation is missing.  While effectively managing inputs of seed, fertilizer, equipment, fuel, and labor can all contribute to an irrigator’s earnings, saving water will not itself save the irrigator any money at all under a flat billing structure.   Whether a farmer applies 1 million gallons of water or 2 million gallons to an acre of land, the cost for water is the same.  Without measurement and volumetric billing, water is incrementally free.  But of course, water is much more valuable in California today than a price tag marked “free” would convey.  So in 2009 the Legislature sought to correct this erroneous price signal for water, at least in the state’s largest irrigation districts.

How big a deal is this?  A rough estimate by the California Department of Water Resources (DWR) finds that a majority of the irrigated acreage served by large water districts in the Southern San Joaquin Valley is already receiving water in a manner compliant with the law.  But the majority of irrigated acreage subject to the Act in other parts of the Central Valley is not measured at the farm gate -- well over one million acres.  The biggest gap is in Northern California, notably the flooded fields of rice that are apparent to anyone driving or flying north out of Sacramento. 

California is the number two rice producing state in the nation, and in 2010, more than 550,000 acres of rice were harvested (nearly all from six contiguous counties in the Sacramento Valley), an amount of harvested acreage that was second only to hay among all crops harvested statewide.  With an average water application of about five acre-feet per acre, rice production draws nearly 3 million acre-feet of water per year, a staggering amount roughly equal to the customer demand of five cities the size of Los Angeles.  So a requirement for water measurement and volumetric billing in rice country could bring new attention to rice production and management practices that might eventually save a significant amount of water – but only if regulations effectively implement the law. 

Tomorrow I’ll write about how California’s Department of Water Resources is acting to weaken the new water law and what this means for water efficiency.