California Water Regulators Propose Exemptions from Farm Water Measurement Law

To recap yesterday’s blog, in 2009, California’s Legislature enacted a major water efficiency law to better manage the state’s variable water supply and prepare for the future as the economy rebounds and millions more people choose to live and work here.

Today's blog highlights California’s Department of Water Resources (DWR) pending plan to weaken the requirements for agricultural water suppliers to comply with the new law, the Water Conservation Act of 2009.  At issue is the law's requirement for large irrigation districts to measure the volume of water delivered to their irrigation customers, so that water users pay for the amount of water they use, not just a flat fee regardless of water use.  

The DWR is responsible for developing regulations to provide agricultural water suppliers with a range of options to comply with the water measurement requirement.  The Act requires water suppliers to “measure the volume of water delivered to customers with sufficient accuracy” to comply with subdivision (a) of Section 531.10 (a requirement for reporting water deliveries at the "farm gate" -- the point of delivery to a farmer's field) and to implement volumetric pricing.  It's understandable that the legislature would leave narrow technical questions to be handled by an administrative rulemaking.

But DWR’s proposed regulation would give agricultural water suppliers the option to avoid the requirement to even measure water deliveries at the farm gate, and instead allow measurement upstream in a canal.  (How such measurements would be allocated to individual irrigators with enough accuracy to be used in a bona fide volumetric billing system remains to be seen.) 

A permanent exemption from the requirement for measurement of water delivery at the farm gate would be allowed if: (i) the water supplier does not currently have access to the customer delivery point; or (ii) if the accuracy standard cannot be met with a single measurement device, “such as occurs for rice cultivation.”  The exemption based on lack of access sounds compelling, except when you consider its circular logic – districts that don’t measure by volume don’t need access to locate a measurement device, and therefore don’t now have access to install and operate a device that does not now exist.  And the exemption for rice production is little more than an accommodation of the status quo for one of the state’s most water-intensive enterprises. 

Taken together, these overly broad exemptions ensure that many large irrigation districts will avoid farm gate measurement and continue to rely on some form of estimation for water deliveries to individual irrigators, which jeopardizes the move to volumetric pricing that is also required by the Water Conservation Act.  DWR expects that half of all acreage subject to the regulation in the Sacramento Valley will not be measured at the farm gate.  Sizeable portion of Kings River basin lands may also avoid farm gate measurement under the current access exemption.

But wait, there’s more.

DWR’s current draft regulations even fail to require accurate measurement of the volume of water deliveries – the core requirement of the law.  DWR would allow for the irrigation districts to measure either flow rate or flow velocity and certify the accuracy of such measurements to the state, in lieu of certifying the accuracy of the actual volume of irrigation water supplied to the customer. 

Here’s the rub: neither flow rate nor velocity constitute volume without the addition of additional variables, like time, which themselves are subject to measurement error.  Although DWR would require water suppliers to document how they converted measured flow rate or flow velocity into volume, no standard is being proposed for the level of accuracy of the computed volume resulting from the districts’ calculations.  Thus, an irrigation district’s reported volumes of water delivered to its customers are held to no standard of accuracy at all.

Nothing in the language of the Water Conservation Act suggests any legislative intention that a significant portion of the irrigation water delivery system should be broadly and permanently exempt from farm-gate measurement, or that accurate measurement of volume was not required. 

On May 18, the California Water Commission took up DWR’s proposed regulation and fortunately determined that it was not yet ready for approval.  The CWC asked DWR for more information and expects to take up the issue again in June. 

Agricultural water measurement may yet become a reality in California, supporting innovation and rewarding efficiency by irrigators in the state’s largest irrigation districts.  Or not, if DWR remains more comfortable with the status quo than with carrying out a landmark statute intended to save water in the largest state in the arid West.