California Plans to Give Millions to Water Wasters

California is in the midst of a fifth year of drought. More than 80 percent of the state is experiencing drought conditions, and nearly 34 million people are living in drought-afflicted areas. The drought affects all of us, including California’s many farms and ranches. Yet despite the repeated calls that we must all do our part to save water, many irrigation districts have continually failed to adopt very basic water conservation and planning practices. But instead of making these water suppliers comply, the state’s Department of Water Resources (DWR) recently announced plans to give millions in grant dollars to suppliers that are dodging their responsibilities under the law. This is especially distressing since NRDC just settled a lawsuit against an irrigation district and DWR in May over this exact issue. 

Water oftentimes is delivered to farms through open, unlined canals, which are prone to water loss from leaks, spills, and evaporation.

Lance Cheung, USDA

In 2013, we found that 70 percent of California’s irrigation districts had failed to submit their required 2012 water management plan. And as of the end of August 2016, approximately 40 percent of large irrigation districts (serving > 25,000 acres) and more than 80 percent of medium-sized districts (serving 10,000-25,000 acres) had failed to adopt and submit a 2015 plan. For large irrigation districts, this is more than eight months after the deadline. Despite this glaring lack of compliance, DWR has proposed awarding approximately $2.7 million in total grant funding to three agricultural water suppliers that have failed to submit their 2015 plan.

State law also requires agricultural water suppliers (serving 2,000 or more acres) to submit an annual report of the supplier’s total customer water deliveries for the prior calendar year. Although these reports have been due annually for the past four years, many districts have failed to turn them in. However, instead of rectifying this problem, DWR has rewarded this non-compliance by proposing to award nearly $15 million in grants to suppliers that have failed to submit these reports on time. 

In comments submitted last week, we pointed out several changes that DWR should make to its agricultural water efficiency grants program to more responsibly and effectively manage these funds and more consistently apply the requirements of California law:

Reject grant applications from agricultural water suppliers that have failed to file required water management plans and water delivery reports, and reallocate funds to qualified applicants

DWR should (1) stop processing applications from suppliers that have failed to follow planning and reporting requirements; (2) reallocate funds to qualified applicants that are fully compliant with these requirements; and (3) if necessary, solicit new proposals from fully compliant agricultural water suppliers. In future solicitations, DWR also should reward applicants that submit their plans and reports on time by giving them extra points during the scoring process.

Conduct a sufficient review of water management plans to determine the implementation status of required efficiency practices 

California law also explicitly identifies specific efficiency practices that suppliers must implement, which include measurement of the volume of water delivered to customers and adoption of a pricing structure that is based at least in part on the amount of water delivered. Districts are responsible for implementing additional efficiency practices if they are found to be “locally cost effective” and “technically feasible.”

Our review suggests that DWR must conduct greater oversight as many suppliers are not evaluating, let alone implementing, these efficiency practices as required. DWR can help increase compliance by publishing a methodology for suppliers to use when evaluating the local cost-effectiveness and technical feasibility of additional efficiency practices.

Modify grant agreements to ensure timely implementation of required efficiency practices and financial consequences for failing to do so

DWR should include language in grant award agreements that establishes clear timetables for implementing critical efficiency practices and financial consequences, such as repayment of grant funds, for failing to implement according to the agreed upon schedule.

Make materials submitted by agricultural water suppliers publicly available and easily accessible

DWR must make the materials submitted by agricultural water suppliers—such as grant proposals, annual reports, and management plans—publicly available and more easily accessible to increase transparency and accountability. 

About the Authors

Ben Chou

Policy Analyst, Water program
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