California’s Plan for Agricultural Water Savings Falls Short

John Martinez Pavliga

For months, California’s state agencies have been building a framework to fulfill Governor Brown’s vision of making water conservation a “way of life.” The governor’s executive order in May aimed to bolster California’s climate and drought resilience long-term.  

Earlier this week, the agencies finally released their well-intentioned, albeit flawed, draft plan.

The water use efficiency plan is an effort to push our cities and farms to use our precious water resources more efficiently, and it presents a critical opportunity for Gov. Brown to cement his legacy of moving California toward a more sustainable water future. Yet the plan falls woefully short of achieving the governor’s goal when it comes to agriculture.

California’s current agricultural water conservation laws—measuring the amount of water delivered to farms, charging customers based on how much water they use, and planning for dry times—are simple but important. However, roughly half of the state’s agricultural water suppliers (or districts) consistently flout the rules.

The common sense approach to increasing agricultural water savings would be to step up enforcement of the existing rules, improve transparency of water data, and encourage investments in practices that we know save water. But instead, the state agencies have proposed a convoluted approach to counting the vast amount of water agriculture already uses. In other words, they want to change the way we do the math instead of changing how much water actually gets used.

The plan’s main proposal for increasing the water efficiency of agriculture is to make water districts complete a complicated water budget—an accounting of where water comes from (inflows) and where it goes (outflows). While this proposal doesn’t seem like a bad thing, it has three major flaws:   

  • Insufficient data:  There isn’t enough data for agricultural water suppliers to complete an accurate water budget (and most of them simply don’t have the resources to collect the data). So making it harder for them to follow the law, when only half of them currently do, is just a recipe for failure.
  • Doesn’t improve water efficiency:  Without explicitly directing suppliers to identify water savings opportunities, merely accounting for water inflows and outflows will not increase water efficiency. And the plan glaringly fails to propose new water-saving practices for water districts to implement.
  • Ignores water efficiency benefits:  Water budgets also fail to recognize the benefits of water conservation and efficiency. More efficient water use by farms and water districts makes farmers less vulnerable to drought, reduces water pollution, and supports habitat for fish and other wildlife, among numerous other benefits.   

State agencies should instead focus on reforming the existing agricultural water planning process in several main ways:

  • Standardize reporting:  Agricultural water suppliers are not required to submit their water management plans in a standard format or file their plans and reports electronically. This makes it extremely difficult for the public and the Department of Water Resources (DWR) to review the information submitted. These have been long-standing requirements for urban water suppliers, and DWR should not be holding the water districts to a lower standard.
  • Modernize outdated water delivery systems:  Agricultural water districts should be required to make investments in their water delivery systems so that farmers can reduce water waste. More than 5,000 farms in California still receive water according to a fixed schedule—regardless of whether they need to water their crops. Modernizing outdated water delivery systems would enable farmers to more precisely time irrigation for when their crops actually need water without impacting crop yields.
  • Recognize the role that healthy soil plays in drought resiliency:  Water districts should also be considering how they can help farmers improve soil health by planting cover crops, using compost, or reducing tillage. Healthy soil can reduce the need for irrigation because more water is stored in the soil. As California’s Healthy Soils Initiative recognizes, healthy soil also can help in the fight against climate change by storing carbon. Therefore, water districts should be required to look for opportunities to incentivize soil health on farms within their boundaries
  • Enforce the existing rules:  DWR and the State Water Board must work together to do a better job of enforcing the rules already on the books. Historically, roughly half of all the water districts have not complied with the existing planning and reporting rules. Instead of making them comply, DWR has tried to give public funding to water districts that aren’t following the rules, which is clearly against the law. Instead, the State Water Board needs to step up and hold agricultural water suppliers accountable for following the rules since DWR has failed to do so.

Those are just a few ways that the draft plan can be improved. We’ll be submitting more detailed recommendations by the December 19 public comment deadline to help state agencies achieve the executive order’s goal of leaving a water conservation legacy for California.

About the Authors

Ben Chou

Policy Analyst, Water program

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