Amid drought, laws to track California's biggest water users ignored

The Center for Investigative ReportingMay 28, 2014 

MTD CEK WESTLANDS WATER

Water in an irrigation ditch in Westlands Water District,

CRAIG KOHLRUSS — Fresno Bee file photo Buy Photo

The last time California endured a drought, legislators set their sights on the state's heaviest water users: farmers.

The state designed laws to push agricultural water districts to closely track their water flow and make the largest districts charge farmers based on how much they use. The economic theory is simple: If you aren't paying for how much water you actually use, you have little incentive to try to consume less.

But those rules are widely being ignored as they come into effect in the midst of one of the state's most severe droughts on record.

All but the smallest agricultural water districts were required to track and report to the state how much water they deliver to customers as the result of a 2007 law. Only 20% (48 of 242 districts) have filed those reports, according to California Department of Water Resources data. They were due 10 months ago.

Nearly half (22) of the districts that have filed are based in the central San Joaquin Valley, including the state's largest district, Westlands. The list of districts that aren't meeting the state law includes Fresno Irrigation and Selma-based Consolidated Irrigation.

Under a 2009 law, the 55 largest agricultural water districts also are required to more precisely measure how much water each farmer is using. They're then required to charge farmers -- at least in part -- on that basis.

The state doesn't know how many suppliers are meeting this requirement or are even taking steps toward doing so, because almost half of them have failed to turn in the relevant reports, records show.

The list of districts that have supplied the state with a water management plan includes nine from the central San Joaquin Valley.

Charging for water based on use had been common in some agricultural areas where water is scarce, like the San Joaquin Valley. But now, it's mandatory for large districts throughout California. These water management plans, which spell out how the districts will make the changes, were due at the end of 2012. Districts face few consequences for failing to comply.

By contrast, most residential water customers in California have long seen how much water they use reflected in the bills they receive.

"Throughout the state, people should be paying for water based on how much they use, and that will drive conservation," said Peter Brostrom, program manager of water use efficiency for the Department of Water Resources.

Agriculture, which accounts for some 80% of the water that's used in the state, has met the new rules with skepticism and indifference, as growers cope with the drought.

Consolidated Irrigation District is among those not following the rules. Phil Desatoff, Consolidated's general manager, said he is aware of the state's requirement, but developing such a plan is costly and not necessary.

"We could spend $30,000 to do what the state wants," Desatoff said. "But we are already self-policing and I'd rather have that money to put in more recharge basins."

Desatoff said much of the district's farmland is made up of sandy soil, and if there is any over-irrigating the water seeps back through the soil and recharges the underground aquifer.

"It is not wasted," he said "It goes back to the water table."

In contrast, managers of Westlands Water District have done their state reporting. Westlands spokesperson Gayle Holman said the district complied with the requirement because it's the law. And the 199-page report, posted on the district's website, has been a useful tool.

"It is a very good summary of the best-case practices," Holman said. "It shows everything we are doing to conserve water and what our growers are doing to ensure water is used wisely and correctly. It is a very comprehensive document."

Westlands encompasses more than 600,000 acres of farmland in western Fresno and Kings counties, serving about 600 family-owned farms.

Districts' failure to comply with the requirements troubles environmentalists who promote conservation as one tool for taking on the state's water woes.

"Unless these districts start taking this seriously, it's going to be their customers that suffer," said Claire O'Connor, agricultural water policy analyst for the Natural Resources Defense Council.

The Department of Water Resources has had to rely on letters and workshops to try to cajole districts into complying. There's no penalty for agricultural districts that don't report how much water they're delivering to farms.

Large districts that haven't submitted their water management plans to the state have lost access to $472 million in state grants to encourage conservation and improve water management. But once they turn in their plans, they are eligible for funds again.

That money could be used to help farmers in their districts install more efficient irrigation systems, for instance.

A third party could sue districts for not fulfilling the requirements, but there's little talk of this being in the works.

Farmers aren't the only ones whose water use came under the legislative microscope during the last drought. The state is now trying to achieve a 20% reduction in urban per-capita water use by the end of 2020, based on the same law that targeted large agricultural districts.

Report card

Central San Joaquin Valley water districts that have reported to the state how much water they deliver to customers:

• Alta Irrigation (district office in Dinuba)

• Angiola Water (Corcoran)

• Burrel Ditch Co. (Riverdale)

• Crescent Canal Co. (Riverdale)

• Dudley Ridge Water (Kings County)

• Empire West Side Irrigation (Stratford)

• Laguna Irrigation (Riverdale)

• Last Chance Water Ditch Co. (Hanford)

• Liberty Canal Co. (Riverdale)

• Liberty Mill Race Mutual Water Co. (Riverdale)

• Lindmore Irrigation (Lindsay)

• Lone Tree Mutual Water Co. (El Nido)

• Madera Irrigation

• Merced Irrigation

• Peoples Ditch Co. (Hanford)

• Reed Ditch Co. (Riverdale)

• Riverdale Irrigation

• San Luis Canal Co. (Dos Palos)

• Stinson Canal & Irrigation Co. (Fresno)

• Tulare Irrigation

• Tulare Lake Basin Water Storage (Corcoran)

• Westlands Water (Fresno)

The state's 55 largest agricultural water districts are required to more precisely measure how much water each farmer is using with a detailed management plan. Here's how the central San Joaquin Valley districts that fall into that category have performed:

SUBMITTED

• Alta Irrigation (district office in Dinuba)

• Chowchilla Irrigation

• Laguna Irrigation (Riverdale)

• Madera Irrigation

• Merced Irrigation

• Orange Cove Irrigation

• Tulare Irrigation

• Tulare Lake Basin Water Storage (Corcoran)

• Westlands Water (Fresno)

NOT SUBMITTED

• Consolidated Irrigation (Selma)

• Corcoran Irrigation

• Delano-Earlimart Irrigation

• Lakeside Irrigation Water (Hanford)

• Lower Tule River Irrigation (Tipton)

• Panoche Water (Firebaugh)

• Pixley Irrigation

• San Luis Water (Los Banos)

REQUIRED, IN PROGRESS

• Central California Irrigation (Los Banos)

• Fresno Irrigation

• San Luis Canal Co. (Dos Palos)

NOT REQUIRED, BUT SUBMITTED

• Columbia Canal Co. (Firebaugh)

• Dudley Ridge Water (Kings County)

Source: California Department of Water Resources (water delivery data as of May 9; water management plans as of April 18)

Bee staff writer Robert Rodriguez contributed to this report. This story was produced by The Center for Investigative Reporting, an award-winning nonprofit news organization based in the Bay Area. For more, visit cironline.org. Mieszkowski can be reached at kmieszkowski@cironline.org.

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