What the Numbers Reveal About California's Water Priorities

California's drought and the responses to it have prompted a lot of finger pointing about who is responsible for the state's current water shortages. But what do the facts tell us? First and foremost, the facts confirm that the lack of rain and snow is the primary cause of today's water shortages. But the facts also paint an interesting picture of where we are allocating the little water that we have in this fourth year of drought, and what those allocations reflect about societal priorities for this precious resource.

Around 1.6 Million Acre-Feet Allocated for Growing Rice

One lucky group of federal water contractors -- known as the Sacramento Valley Settlement Contractors -- will get 1.6 million acre-feet of water in this fourth year of drought, just like they did last year. An acre-foot of water is generally enough to meet the water needs of two families for one year (at least until we all become more efficient). 1.6 million acre-feet is the equivalent of more than 521 billion gallons of water, or enough water to supply about two cities the size of Los Angeles and one San Diego every year.

These lucky contractors primarily grow rice in the Sacramento Valley. Rice is a relatively low-value, high water-use crop, and is typically grown in California by continually flooding fields for several months of the year to a depth of up to about 8 inches. More than 400,000 acres of rice are expected to be grown in the Sacramento Valley this year. The allocation for the Sacramento Valley Settlement Contractors from the federal Central Valley Project this year represents a full 75% of their contract amounts, which total more than 2.1 million acre-feet in most years. Despite the ostensible 25% reduction in their contract allocation, most of these contractors never use their full contract amounts, and some districts have publicly stated that they "can provide water users a full supply of water even with a supply reduction of 25%."

1.3 Million Acre-Feet Saved from Mandatory Urban Conservation Savings

The amount of water that the Sacramento Valley Settlement Contractors will receive this year totals 300,000 acre-feet more than the entire statewide water savings anticipated from Governor Brown's mandatory 25% cut in urban water uses this year. As the Los Angeles Times explained:

State officials estimate that the 25% reduction in urban use would save about 1.3 million acre-feet of drinking water over the next nine months. That is more than twice what the entire city of Los Angeles uses in a year.

60 Thousand Acre-Feet of Export Reductions for Threatened and Endangered Fish in 2014

The amount of water that the Sacramento Valley Settlement Contractors will receive this year is also about 26 times the total amount of water reductions attributable to Endangered Species Act protections for threatened and endangered fish in water year 2014, including salmon, sturgeon, steelhead and delta smelt. In fact, zero reductions in water supply were made for delta smelt in the 2014 water year, as the field supervisor of the Bay-Delta office for the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service testified to California's State Water Resources Control Board in February, 2015 (around minute 13). Similarly, the Deputy Secretary of the Interior testified to Congress in February, 2015, that protections for endangered salmon and steelhead only reduced water supply by 60 thousand acre-feet in 2014 -- about 2% of the total reduction in water supply in water year 2014, with 98% due to drought (around minute 61).

So what do these numbers tell us? First, they demonstrate that Endangered Species Act protections are having a negligible impact on water supplies in the midst of this drought. In fact, water supply impacts attributable to protections for threatened and endangered fish last year are a literal drop in the bucket compared to the water supply impacts attributable to lopsided allocations dictated by archaic water contracts with the federal government, which direct that some lucky users get lots of surface water while others get nothing. Meanwhile, our native fish are suffering severe declines in the drought, from which some may be unable to recover.

Second, the numbers demonstrate that, while we can and should take steps to reduce water use in our cities and towns, we must also do more to reduce water use and improve water use efficiency in the agricultural sector. While some agricultural regions are suffering in the drought, others continue to flood hundreds of thousands of acres several inches deep. And even when surface water is unavailable for some agricultural water contractors, many growers have dramatically increased groundwater pumping, and as a result, statewide agricultural acreage in California was reduced by only 5% in 2014, according to estimates. Without grappling with some of the warped incentives and convoluted priorities built into our water distribution system that lead to these lopsided outcomes, we're not going to solve the problem of water scarcity in California.

Finally, a side-effect of the drought has been to shine a light on the allocation and use of our scarce water supplies in California, and ways that we might improve on those century-old practices. Not only has the state issued water rights in excess of five times the amount of water that we have available in a good rain year, but the federal government has promised far more water for delivery every year in its Central Valley Project contracts than has ever been delivered and, likely, could ever be delivered, given the realites of climate change and other limits on the system. We can and must reform these outdated systems that create completely unrealistic and unsustainable demands, leading rivers to literally dry up, nearly wiping out California's 150-year old salmon fishery, and driving other fish and wildlife to extinction.

This is a healthy and necessary conversation to have, not only in drought, but in assessing the state's ability to provide sufficient water for a growing population and economy, a thriving agricultural sector, and healthy rivers and fisheries in a climate-changed future. Let's make sure it's a conversation grounded in facts.