California Hasn’t Come Clean About Its Water Use During the Drought

Farms drink up a majority of the state’s water supply, but the details are murky. Most of the largest irrigation districts aren’t reporting how much water they delivered to farmers.

An agricultural irrigation system used on a commercial farm in central California

Credit: B Christopher/Alamy

We have only spotty records of how much water flowed onto California farmlands during the state’s driest years. And that’s against the law.

Under a bill enacted in 2007, irrigation districts that supply water to farms are required to report to the California Department of Water Resources (DWR) how much water they deliver to farmers’ fields each year. The law took effect in 2012—soon after the start of the record-breaking, multiyear drought—but a recent investigation by NRDC found that only 12 percent of the state’s largest irrigation districts had turned in all of the required reports, and 28 percent never turned in any report as of 2017.

To produce the 400-plus commodities grown throughout the Golden State, California farms absorb about 80 percent of the state’s developed water supply (the remaining 20 percent goes to businesses and homes). But the NRDC report sheds light on just how little we know about exactly where, by whom, and how that agricultural water gets used. Without these answers, management of California’s most precious resource remains hindered.

When Ed Osann, NRDC senior policy analyst and water efficiency project director, first requested information from DWR, he was primed to expect some holes in the data. The agency had warned him that the annual farm-gate delivery reports might be incomplete or contain errors. But Osann didn’t anticipate the extent of nonreporting nor DWR’s own mismanagement of the reported data. In his initial round of requests of water delivery data from 20 irrigation districts, he discovered many water suppliers were not sending in their required annual reports—even though, as NRDC water program policy analyst Tracy Quinn puts it, “the form that they’re required to submit is very simple, half a page—not convoluted at all.”

On further investigation, Osann found that DWR rarely followed up when these reports went lacking. What’s more, he learned that, even in the 21st century, the agency was receiving paper report forms as well as email attachments and manually reentering data from both formats into a database. Making things even more complicated, three years into the program, DWR had switched to a different database and had not synced up the data sets to allow electronic tabulation or analysis of data from all reporting years. As a result, many reports never made it into the databases, reports were double-counted, and the databases contained data-entry errors. And neither database was posted online for public access.

Given the simplicity of the reporting requirement, Osann questions the management of the water suppliers who are failing to submit this half-page form. “The issue is either inattention to this requirement or a more purposeful avoidance of compliance,” he says. The suppliers could be driven by a desire to avoid potential oversight or additional regulation from state agencies. The failure to report doesn’t necessarily mean that the districts are not measuring the deliveries, he adds, but it does hinder any attempt by researchers to move beyond estimates and get to the actual quantities of water delivered to farms. “They’re hoarding the data, and that limits the ability of anybody else to consider that information,” Osann states.

When asked why the Imperial Irrigation District in Southern California had chosen not to comply with reporting responsibilities during the drought years, a spokesperson for the water supplier, one of the largest of its kind in the country, told the Sacramento Bee that it had determined it was exempt from the requirements, even though it had filed a report in 2012, the first year of the law. (A scientist from the DWR who oversees the farm-gate reports said he wasn’t aware of such an exemption.)

Researchers could be teasing important insights out of the water delivery data if reports were comprehensive, standardized, and publicly available. For example, they could gain a view of how irrigation water deliveries change from month to month and from year to year. Water delivery data could be aggregated by river basin and subbasin and coupled with data on stream-flow conditions. The numbers could shed light on whether water agencies and irrigation districts could more efficiently deliver water to farms, and whether on-farm uses could be more efficient.

The ability to mine and analyze the data would help provide valuable direction when California faces future droughts and looks to tighten its water management. Already, its urban populations have responded to state-imposed mandates on water use, reducing cities’ consumption by 25 percent in 2015 (under restrictions that were relaxed in 2016 after the drought appeared to ease up). Unfortunately, the agricultural industry hasn’t taken the same responsibility for its role in the state’s unsustainable water use. And that puts planners at a disadvantage. As Quinn notes, “We can’t advocate for conservation if we don’t know what our baseline measurements are.”

Governor Jerry Brown (center) meeting with more than a dozen business representatives to discuss cities’ water-use targets during the drought, April 2015
Credit: Rich Pedroncelli/AP

All is not lost, however. Osann and his colleagues believe the damage is reparable. DWR still has an obligation to demand that irrigation districts supply missing reports or missing information from existing reports. Quinn and her team suggested some policy changes to make things right, and the new law signed by Governor Jerry Brown on May 31, 2018, introduces some of these changes, including electronic filing of farm-gate delivery reports and the creation of an online database so that the reports can be easily found and analyzed by the public.

“We want this information to be available, and frankly the public is entitled to it,” Osann says. And they’ll need it soon—the Golden State can’t afford to wait for the next drought to get its water measurement and monitoring under control.

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