Groundwater reform more important than water bond

Photo by Kelly M. Grow/California Department of Water Resources

Delivery point of the Coachella Valley Water District’s groundwater replenishment facility. Imported Colorado River percolates into the valley’s aquifer, replenishing 40,000 acre-feet of water annually. Photo by Kelly M. Grow/California Department of Water Resources

By Jay Lund and Thomas Harter

California lawmakers recently found extraordinary consensus in approving a $7.5 billion water bond for the November election ballot. If the measure wins, however, future generations will not necessarily reap many of the promised water supply benefits without additional actions.

To significantly improve its resilience to drought, California must quickly get a grip on the runaway depletion of its dwindling groundwater resources.

In this year’s drought alone, California farms and cities are expected to pump more than 20 million acre-feet from aquifers. That is more than all the surface water diverted from the state’s rivers and streams. And it is far more water than could physically be delivered from all the additional reservoir capacity proposed for bond funding.

Groundwater is and always will be California’s primary buffer against droughts. Yet many parts of the state have been drawing on aquifers as if they were bottomless savings accounts.

The pump-as-you-please practice threatens the sustainability of the state’s most profitable agriculture, particularly permanent crops such as vineyards and orchards. Continued overdraft furthers land subsidence and seawater intrusion, worsens water quality and diminishes fish and wildlife habitat dependent on groundwater. As water tables drop, the annual costs of pumping and drilling more and deeper wells quickly exceed those of financing the proposed water bond – about $500 million in state general funds a year, for 30 years.

Source: California Department of Water Resources

Source: California Department of Water Resources

Agriculture and rural residents will initially bear the brunt of increased pumping costs and diminished reliability of groundwater during droughts. In the longer term, pumping as usual means groundwater simply will not be an available alternative to many Californians who lose access to surface water during droughts.

The current drought poses a historical opportunity to bridge a major gap in California water regulation that other western states remedied almost a century ago.

While the water bond contains many useful elements, the Legislature has before it much more important legislation for ensuring California’s resilience in droughts. Two proposals, Senate Bill 1168 carried by Sen. Fran Pavley, D-Agoura Hills (Los Angeles County), and Assembly Bill 1739 authored by Assemblyman Roger Dickinson, D-Sacramento, would require local agencies to manage groundwater sustainably.

Sustaining a prosperous civilization in California’s dry climate requires firm accounting of all major water resources, including groundwater. When management of a resource as valuable as groundwater is lacking, overdraft and litigation fill the void. Investments that depend on groundwater then become riskier, leading water users to pursue more secure, but more expensive and environmentally damaging water supply sources such as deeper wells and new reservoirs. The added risk of unreliable groundwater also can increase the cost of credit for agriculture and rural development.

Increasing the security and enforceability of groundwater and surface-water rights is the most effective action the Legislature can take to help this dry state weather droughts and reduce water costs to cities and farms.

Jay Lund, a professor of civil and environmental engineering, and Thomas Harter, a groundwater specialist, are with the Center for Watershed Sciences at UC Davis. 

Further reading

Lund, J.R., Medellin-Azuara, J., Harter, T. (2014). Why California’s agriculture needs groundwater management. California WaterBlog. May 26, 2014

Lund, J.R., et al. Taking agriculture conservation seriously. California WaterBlog. March 15, 2011

Grabert, V.K., Harter, T., Parker, T. (2014). Modernizing California’s groundwater management. California WaterBlog. June 22, 2014

Howitt, R.E., Medellin-Azuara, J., MacEwan, D., Lund, J.R. and Sumner, D.A. (2014). Economic Analysis of the 2014 Drought for California Agriculture. Center for Watershed Sciences, University of California, Davis, Calif. 20p

Nirappil, Fenit (2014). California Water Bond Won’t Be a Drought-Buster. Associated Press, Aug. 16 , 2014

Williams, Juliet (2014). California water bond signals historic compromise . Associated Press, Aug. 14, 2014

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California water rights: You can’t manage what you don’t measure

Photo by Joshua Viers/UC Merced

An irrigation ditch supplies Merced County farms. State regulators are increasingly seeking to know how much water is being used throughout the state, and by whom. Photo by Joshua Viers/UC Merced, April  23, 2014

By Ted Grantham and Joshua Viers

California water experts have long known the amount of surface water granted by water rights far exceeds the state’s average supplies. Historically, the over-allocation has not raised much concern; in most years, there has been enough runoff of rain and snowmelt to go around.

But circumstances are changing. California is suffering the third driest year in a century and demands for water are at an all-time high. The huge gap between allocations and natural flows — coupled with great uncertainty over water-rights holders’ actual usage — is increasingly creating conflicts between water users and confusion for water managers trying to figure out whose supplies should be curtailed during a drought.

To understand where and to what degree California rivers have been claimed, we mapped all appropriative water rights recorded by the State Water Resources Control Board. We quantified the total “face value”, or maximum annual diversion volume, of water rights for all rivers and streams and compared this data with estimates of water supply.

Source: UC Davis center for Watershed Sciences

Cumulative water-right allocations relative to mean annual runoff, excluding water rights for hydropower generation. Source: UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences

We found that water rights exceed average supplies in more than half of the state’s large river basins, including the Salinas River, where water-rights claims amount to three times the average flow, and the San Joaquin River, where water rights exceed flows by as much as eightfold.

Not only are many rivers over-allocated but the amount of water actually used by water-rights holders is poorly understood. Comparisons of allocations with water use suggest that in most of California, only a fraction of claimed water is being used. Statewide, appropriative water-rights claims for consumptive uses are about five times greater than average surface-water withdrawals.

The Associated Press recently reported that the state water board is unable to track the water usage tied to many of California’s oldest and largest water rights (Dearen & Burke 2014). The state system primarily relies on self-reported water use records, which are riddled with errors, even for the some of the state’s largest water users.

In a well-functioning water-rights system where allocations are closely tracked and verified, over-allocation is not necessarily a problem. During water shortages, the state would order holders of junior appropriation rights to curtail use. When water is abundant, most water-rights holders should be able to fully exercise their claims.

Inaccurate accounting, however, threatens the security of water rights — particularly when water is scarce. Earlier in this drought year, for example, the water board sought to protect fish in some watersheds by threatening curtailments of water rights held by all users within those drainages. More targeted cutbacks might have been sufficient if the agency had accurate water-use information.

Photo By Joshua Viers/UC Merced, April 22. 2014

California grants an average of more than five times as much than is available in its rivers and streams. Photo by Joshua Viers/UC Merced, April 22, 2014

The lax water accounting has intensified conflicts between users during the drought. Operators of the state and federal water projects recently asked the water board to investigate diversion practices by farmers in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. As the Sacramento Bee recently reported, the water agencies suspect farmers are taking water released from upstream dams that is intended for consumers elsewhere. The California Sportfishing Protection Alliance, a group often allied with Delta landowners, has countered with a formal complaint to the board alleging that the agencies are illegally diverting water from rivers that flow into the Delta. (Weiser 2014).

Innovative approaches to California’s water management challenges also are dependent on accurate water-rights accounting (Hanak et al. 2011). For example, water markets rely on transparent and accurate quantification of water transfers. Uncertainty in water rights may also discourage conjunctive management of surface and groundwater to improve water supply reliability (Draper et al. 2003).

In over-prescribed systems, water needed to meet new and evolving demands will likely require curtailment of water rights. This is not as daunting or threatening as it may seem.

Impacts to private water rights will likely be minimal because public agencies control the bulk of the state’s water supply. Tightening the water accounting would have a much greater effect on state and federal water project operators, water utilities and irrigation districts that collectively hold rights to 80 percent of the allotted water — compared with less than 1 percent held by individuals.

fig3_ownership.psd

(a) Water rights and (b) face value allocation volumes issued to public and private entities since 1915, based on appropriative water-rights records. Volumetric allocations to water rights held by individuals in (b) is negligible. Source: UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences

Major policy changes may not be necessary to improve California’s water rights system. California law already allows re-allocation of water rights to address evolving societal needs and changing environmental conditions (Littleworth and Garner 2007). For example, the public trust doctrine establishes that the government has an ongoing duty to safeguard natural resources (Frank 2012). California’s Fish and Game Code 5937 is an expression of that doctrine, requiring dam owners to provide enough flows below impoundments to maintain fish in good condition.

The state water board, however, will need legislative authority and funding to improve the recordkeeping and effectively enforce water rights. According to board staff, the agency does not have the resources to systematically verify water usage or check even the most obvious mistakes in the records. Yet the board still relies on these inaccurate data in deciding how and where to grant water-rights permits (Dearan and Burke 2014).

Improving the water-rights system, of course, will not alone solve California’s myriad water management challenges (Hanak et al. 2011). But without better quantification and regulation of water rights, prospects of reconciling competing water demands in a drought-stricken state will remain bleak.

The tools and technology to quantify water supplies and accurately track usage are at our disposal. All that is lacking is political will.

Ted Grantham, a scientist with the U.S. Geological Survey, analyzed the state water-rights database as a postdoctoral researcher at the UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences. Joshua Viers is director of the Center for Information Technology Research in the Interest of Society (CITRIS) at UC Merced. Their study of the California water rights system was published Aug. 19, 2014

Time lapse of California water rights allocations, 1915-2012

 

Further reading

Börk K S, Krovoza J F, Katz J V and Moyle P B. 2012. The Rebirth of California Fish & Game Code Section 5937: Water for Fish. UC Davis Law Review. 45 809–913

Dearen J and Burke G. 2014. California’s flawed water system can’t track usage. Associated Press, May 27, 2014.

Draper A, Jenkins M, Kirby K, Lund J, Howitt R. 2003. Economic-Engineering Optimization for California Water Management. Journal of Water Resources Planning and Management 129: 155-164

Frank R M. 2012. The Public Trust Doctrine: Assessing Its Recent Past & Charting Its Future. UC Davis Law Review. 45 665–92

Grantham T and Viers J. 2014. 100 years of California’s water rights system: patterns, trends and uncertainty, Environmental Resource Letters. 9 084012

Hanak E, Lund J, Dinar A, Gray B, Howitt R, Mount J, Moyle P and Thompson B B. 2011. Managing California’s Water: From Conflict to Reconciliation. Public Policy Institute of California, San Francisco, Calif.

Little Hoover Commission. 2010. Managing for Change: Modernizing California’s Water Governance. Sacramento, Calif.

Littleworth A L and Garner E L. 2007. California Water II. Solano Press Books, Point Arena, Calif.

Weiser, Matt. 2014. Water agencies: Delta farmers may be taking water meant for other regions. The Sacramento Bee, Aug. 18, 2014

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Drought journal: Search for Sierra fish goes from bad to worse

 

UC Davis student Scott Perry measures water quality in an isolated pool on Hatch Creek near Don Pedro Reservoir. Photo by Andy Bell, UC Davis

UC Davis student Scott Perry measures water quality in an isolated pool on Hatch Creek near Don Pedro Reservoir. Photo by Andy Bell, UC Davis, Aug. 11, 2014

Is the drought hastening the decline of California’s native fish? Will they be able to recolonize once normal conditions return?

To help find out, a team of researchers with the UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences are taking the pulse of about 70 streams and rivers across northern and central California this summer, examining habitat conditions and sampling by electrofishing to document the composition and density of fish communities. The selected streams all have data from earlier fish surveys for comparison.

Amber Manfree, a geographer with the center, happily volunteered to help the team last week —”What could beat four days of camping and sampling fish in the central Sierra?” She joined project leader Rebecca Quiñones, researcher Andy Bell and student assistants Scott Perry and Cameron Reyes as they examined about a dozen sites in the Tuolumne River Watershed. The group is midway through the summer-long project.

By Amber Manfree

Our minivan was packed to the gills with nets, electroshock backpacks, snorkels and camping gear for a fish survey that we expected to take four days.

Tuolumnerivermap

Tuolumne River Watershed. Source: Wikipedia

We began Monday, August 11, on the Tuolumne River at the foot of the Sierra, between Modesto and Don Pedro Lake. Don Pedro is the largest of seven reservoirs, including Hetch Hetchy, that moderate Tuolumne River flows and ensure a steady supply to cities and farms even in severe droughts.

We examined three sites on the river before noon: Fox Grove Park near Modesto, River Park in Waterford and Tuolumne River Campground at Turlock Lake State Recreation Area. We found a mix of native and alien species: Sacramento Pikeminnow, Sacramento sucker, white crappie, smallmouth bass and mosquitofish

Little did we know that our fish finds from there on would be so sparse.

Farther uphill, near the western arm of Don Pedro, we searched the Red Hills for the highly imperiled Red Hills roach. Yet to be formally described, the minnow species lives only in the tiny alkaline streams of this otherworldly landscape of red dust, bluish forbs, ghostly gray pines and steep rocky hills. A fish would have to be special to get along in a place like this.

This stretch of Six-bit Gulch near Sonora, where Red Hills roach has dried up because of the drought. Photo by Karin Higgins/UC Davis, Aug. 14, 2014

This stretch of Six-bit Gulch near Sonora, where Red Hills roach typically are found has dried up because of the drought. Photo by Karin Higgins/UC Davis, Aug. 14, 2014

We soon realized that access to the main stream, Six-bit Gulch, was on private land; we would need permission to enter. Willows shrouded the streambed and from our vantage there was no way of telling whether it had any water. On the way out we debated the odds.

The next site was on the Middle Fork Tuolumne River along Highway 120 and just inside the perimeter of last summer’s Rim fire, the third largest wildfire in California history. The road was closed to the public because of potential landslides and falling trees. We asked a worker on his way out if we could get through to the river, but he advised against it. He told us the river was “a mess” — full of sediment — and that a recent storm had turned it the color of chocolate milk.

Having been turned away from the Middle Fork, we checked out the nearby Rainbow Pool swimming hole on the South Fork Tuolumne River as a potential sampling site. We spotted several trout from the banks, but electrofishing — passing electric currents in the water to stun and more easily capture fish for our sampling —was out the question with so many swimmers in the water.

Rainbow Pool swimming hole on the South Fork Tuolumne River. Photo by Andy Bell/UC Davis

Rainbow Pool swimming hole on the South Fork Tuolumne River. Photo by Andy Bell/UC Davis

Families lounged on the rocks and people jumped from the top of the falls. Picnic trash and beer cans were strewn about. A middle-aged swimmer urged us to take a dip: “I’ve been coming here for years and this is the warmest it’s ever been – warmest it’s ever been!” His words rang in my ears as I walked back to the van.

As we moved up the Tuolumne drainage and the creeks got smaller, the effects of drought became more evident. On Woods Creek at Harvard Mine Road near Jamestown, where previous surveys had found dozens of fish, we found only sun-baked bedrock strewn with dry leaves.

A few miles upstream at Wigwam Road we found a couple tepid pools crowded with California roach and inch-long Sacramento suckers waiting out the hot summer days. Substantial rains are likely still months away. Until they arrive, the pools will continue to shrink in the summer heat and fish will be increasingly hard-pressed to survive.

Almost as soon as we reached our home for the night, Fraser Flats campground on the South Fork Stanislaus River, thunder boomed and dark clouds gathered. Rain might be bothersome while pitching camp, but we hoped some might fall on those dwindling pools with their captive fish. Alas, the clouds soon moved on without shedding a drop.

A waterless stretch of Woods Creek near Jamestown. Photo by Andy Bell/UC Davis, Aug. 12, 2014

A waterless stretch of Woods Creek near Jamestown. Photo by Andy Bell/UC Davis, Aug. 12, 2014

Osprey dived for their dinner in the evening light and the team reflected on the day. We had covered a startling amount of ground, having visited a third of the sites on the four-day itinerary in just the first day.

In the Tuolumne River watershed, a convergence of factors endangering native fish was already apparent: invasive non-native fish, sediment-filled runoff following a massive wildfire and severe drought. Together, they can push our native fish to extirpation, one watershed at a time.

On the second day, we turned to even smaller creeks on ever more sinuous back roads. Signs urging citizens to conserve water appeared everywhere we went.

The old scientific field notes don’t include geographic coordinates, so locating previously surveyed sites was sometimes difficult. Once we oriented ourselves, we found five sites in short order. All were dry.

Andy Bell snapped photos and project leader Rebecca Quiñones noted streambed conditions. Cameron Reyes and Scott Perry scouted up and downstream, hoping to find an isolated pool or two, but they came back shaking their heads. Finally, we spotted water at a site matching a description in the 1986 field notes: “Pool below 20-foot falls in bedrock canyon with large boulders.”

An isolated pool in Woods Creek. Photo by Andy Bell/UC Davis, Aug. 12, 2014

An isolated pool in Woods Creek. Photo by Andy Bell/UC Davis, Aug. 12, 2014

A highway pullout on a grade afforded us a view 50 feet below of a murky green pool in full sun surrounded by heavily grazed oak woodlands. Not promising. Scrambling down the slope, Bell predicted a water temperature of 82°F.

On closer inspection we were surprised to find clear, cool water seeping out of a sheer rock face, feeding the pool steadily, if slowly, and supporting an aquatic microcosm of crayfish, dragon and damselflies. One wary fish darted for cover before it could be identified. The bed was lined with thin, fibrous, bright-green algae, but the water was crystal clear and registered 79°F. Several other pools just downstream supported a few dozen California roach, as well as bullfrogs and Pacific tree frogs.

For the rest of the day, however, we found nothing but dry and nearly dry streambeds. All of these sites had supported fish in the recent decades, as our predecessors noted in their field books.

The lack of water and fish left of with little to do. We completed our four-day itinerary by 6 p.m. the second day, save one site that is accessible only by a four-wheel drive vehicle. Eight of the 11 areas we visited were dry – no fish. The ride home was quiet.

Photos of the rare and highly localized Red Hills roach are hard to find. This is a preserved specimen of an adult, from UC Davis. Photo by Chris Bowman/UC Davis

Photos of the rare and highly localized Red Hills roach are hard to find. This is a preserved specimen of an adult, from UC Davis. Photo by Chris Bowman/UC Davis

“This is the worst week yet,” said Quiñones, whose team has been surveying streams across northern and central California since July 1. “This is going to get more common as we get further into summer. If we have extra time, we may revisit some of our early sites to see how they’re doing.”

And the Red Hills roach? It turns out that the private property we couldn’t access – 960 acres encompassing most of the roach habitat – is on sale for a cool $850,000. Quiñones got permission to enter and headed back out Thursday, Aug. 14, this time with Peter Moyle, two news reporters and equipment for transporting the rare fish to aquaria if the situation looked dire.

Wherever they could reach the gulch, its bed was dry. But they found a trickle of flowing water supporting some 200 roach in a tributary, Horton Creek – no rescue needed.

Peter Moyle reacts to finding some rare Red Hills roach on Horton Creek, a tributary of Six-bit Gulch. The UC Davis professor of fish biology feared the species had gone extinct because of the drought. Photo by Karin Higgins/UC Davis, Aug. 14, 2014

Peter Moyle reacts to finding some rare Red Hills roach on Horton Creek, a tributary of Six-bit Gulch. The UC Davis fish biology professor feared the species had gone extinct because of the drought. Photo by Karin Higgins/UC Davis, Aug. 14, 2014

“This was a total surprise to me,” Moyle told The Sacramento Bee. “Right now there seems to be plenty of water, and the fact that the spring is still working is amazing.”

But the future of the Red Hills roach is by no means secure. Its 4 miles of habitat have shrunk to about 330 feet of functioning stream.

Quiñones and her crew will be revisiting the site next month to make sure the fish are still holding steady. If none are found, it will be the first extinction of a species because of the drought and the first extinction of a fish in California since 1989, when the High Rock Springs tui chub disappeared.

Amber Manfree is a doctoral student of geography and a researcher with the Center for Watershed Sciences at UC Davis.

Further reading

Jeffres, C., Peek, R., Ogaz, M., Journey to the Bottom of the Rim Fire, California WaterBlog, Sept. 26, 2013

Ortiz, Edward, Fish feared extinct still hanging on in creek, The Sacramento Bee, Aug. 15, 2014

Mount JF, et al. 2010.  Confluence: A Natural and Human History of the Tuolumne River Watershed

Moyle PB, Kiernan JD, Crain PK, Quiñones RM (2013) Climate change vulnerability of native and alien freshwater fishes of California: A systematic assessment approach. PLoS ONE 8(5): e63883. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0063883

Quinton, Amy, California’s drought pushes tiny fish toward extinction, Capital Public Radio, Aug. 15, 2014

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Getting through the dry times

A serpentine stretch of the California Aqueduct in Palmdale, along mile post 327.50 on February 7, 2014.

A serpentine stretch of the California Aqueduct in Palmdale. California’s extensive network of aqueducts, canals, pumping plants and reservoirs facilitate water trading. Photo by Florence Low/California Department of Water Resources, Feb. 7, 2014

California’s economy overall is weathering the worst drought in decades remarkably well, thanks in part to groundwater use and water market transfers. But as a recent UC Davis study noted, the resilience is tenuous because groundwater is treated like an unlimited savings account and water marketing is hobbled by red tape and lack of transparency.

Here, Ellen Hanak and Elizabeth Stryjewski with the Public Policy Institute of California chart the state’s progress on water marketing and groundwater banking and suggested ways to streamline their use. Their commentary, originally posted Nov. 30, 2012, is no less timely today.  

By Ellen Hanak and Elizabeth Stryjewski

This week, the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) released a new report that provides a checkup on California’s progress with two innovative water management tools: water marketing and groundwater banking. These tools are part of a modern approach that will enable California to manage its scarce water resources more flexibly and sustainably.

Water marketing involves the temporary, long-term, or permanent transfer of water rights in exchange for compensation. Such transfers can lessen the economic and environmental costs of drought and also help accommodate longer-term shifts in the patterns of water demand. Groundwater banking is another cost-effective tool: it involves the deliberate storage of surface water in aquifers during relatively wet years, for retrieval in dry years.

During the late 2000s, California experienced a multiyear drought—the perfect opportunity to see whether the past few decades of state and federal encouragement of these tools have paid off. We find some progress—but also some backsliding since the drought of the late 1980s and early 1990s.

That earlier drought jump-started California’s water market, thanks in large part to direct state actions. In the late 1980s, the Department of Water Resources (DWR) began purchasing water from a few irrigation districts to make it available to wildlife refuges and State Water Project contractors.

By 1991, when faced with the prospect of draconian across-the-board rationing, DWR launched the state’s first drought water bank, a large-scale brokering program that acquired water from numerous willing sellers and resold it to those facing high costs from shortages. When the rains returned, the water market continued to grow, as many local districts got comfortable trading with each other (Figure 1).

The graph shows volumes of water traded under short-term leases (yellow bars), estimated flows under long-term and permanent contracts (blue bars), and additional volumes committed under the long-term contracts that were not transferred in those years (orange bars).  Currently, about 2 million acre-feet of water trades are committed annually, with around 1.4 million acre-feet actually exchanging hands. PPIC, 2012.

Currently, about 2 million acre-feet of water trades are committed annually, with around 1.4 million acre-feet actually exchanging hands. Source: PPIC, 2012

Today, market trades account for roughly 5 percent of all water used annually by the state’s businesses and residents. Water agencies in most counties now participate in this market. Farmers—the largest water-using sector—continue to be the primary providers. Recipients include other farmers, cities, and environmental programs supporting wildlife reserves and river flows for fish. Long-term and permanent trades—especially valuable for supporting shifts in patterns of water demand—now make up well over half of the market.

However, the market did not perform so well during the latest drought, as the graph above shows. To mitigate the drought, overall sales would have been expected to increase considerably relative to the preceding non-drought years. But our study estimates that transfers provided a total of only 500,000 to 600,000 acre-feet in drought-oriented supplies between 2007 and 2010, above and beyond transfers that would likely have occurred anyway (Figure 2).

The slowing market was unable to provide much drought relief from 2007 to 2010 -- just 500,000 - 600,000 acre-feet. PPIC, 2012

The slowing market was unable to provide much drought relief from 2007 to 2010 — just 500,000 – 600,000 acre-feet. Source: PPIC, 2012

The market slowdown began in the early 2000s. This slowdown reflects a variety of infrastructure and institutional constraints, including more complicated approval procedures and pumping restrictions introduced in 2007 to protect endangered native fish in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, a key water conveyance hub.

Groundwater banking did a better job mitigating the drought. For some time now, water agencies in several parts of the state have been recharging aquifers with surface water for local users. Our study focused on a new form of banking in which local groundwater managers store water for parties located elsewhere in the same county or in other regions.

From the mid-1990s to 2006, these water banks in Kern County and Southern California had built up reserves of nearly 3.4 million acre-feet. Between 2007 and 2010, they returned nearly 1.9 million acre-feet to their depositors, considerably more than the drought-related water market sales (Figure 3). Groundwater storage likely played an even greater role than these numbers suggest: DWR estimates that nearly 90 local agencies have been storing water in their local aquifers.

Figure 3. New groundwater banks were useful in the 2007-2010 drought. Withdrawals totaled 1.9 million acre-feet -- three times the volume that was traded in the dame period. PPIC

Figure 3. New groundwater banks were useful in the 2007-2010 drought. Withdrawals totaled 1.9 million acre-feet — three times the volume that was traded in the same period. Source: PPIC, 2012

What lessons can be drawn from this experience? Despite its good showing, groundwater banking still faces obstacles. More comprehensive local basin management—a common practice in Southern California and Silicon Valley—would prevent unsustainable pumping and long-term declines in groundwater levels. Outside pressure—with a credible threat that the state would step in if local agencies fail to do so—might be the best way to proceed, ideally accompanied by positive financial incentives.

To strengthen the water market, the state needs to clarify and simplify the institutional review process, while continuing to ensure that transfers do not harm the environment or other water users.

Both marketing and banking depend on addressing infrastructure weaknesses that restrict water conveyance through the Delta. Those constraints have already limited both the market’s ability to furnish water supplies in dry years and the availability of supplies to replenish groundwater banks in wet years. Because routinizing marketing and banking transactions will require risk-taking, high-level state and federal officials should be involved, perhaps through a coordinating committee to facilitate decisions.

Attending to these and other priorities described in the report will help ensure the success of two of the state’s most critical strategies for efficiently managing its water resources.

Further reading

Governor’s Commission to Review California Water Rights Law. 1978. Final Report. Sacramento, CA.

Hanak, E. 2003.  Who Should Be Allowed to Sell Water in California?  Third-Party Issues and the Water Market. Public Policy Institute of California

Hanak, E., J. Lund, A. Dinar, B. Gray, R. Howitt, J. Mount, P. Moyle, B. Thompson. 2011. Managing California’s Water: From Conflict to Reconciliation. Public Policy Institute of California

Phelps, C.E., N.Y. Moore, M.H. Graubard. 1978. Efficient Water Use in California:  Water Rights, Water Districts, and Water Transfers. R-2386-CSA/RF. Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation (report to the California State Assembly)

Tanaka, S.K., T. Zhu, J.R. Lund, R.E. Howitt, M.W. Jenkins, M. Pulido-Velazquez, M. Tauber, R.S. Ritzema, I.C. Ferreira. 2006. Climate Warming and Water Management Adaptation for CaliforniaClimatic Change 76(3-4): 361-387.x

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Why utilities shy from mandatory water saving during a drought

Source: California department of Water Resources

Source: California Department of Water Resources

By Jay Lund

The State Water Board’s recent decision to outlaw some water-wasting activities under penalty of $500 fines helps alert urban residents and businesses to the seriousness of the drought. These water conservation actions, though, are fairly mild compared with the water rationing and other mandatory restrictions that Santa Cruz and a few other California communities have imposed this year.

Local water utilities have more leeway than the state in the severity of measures they can take to reduce consumption. But, so far, few of them have gone beyond voluntary calls for water conservation, and only in the face of serious and imminent water shortages.

Voluntary measures generally reduce urban water use by 5 percent to 15 percent. Economic conditions and other factors also can affect how much water people voluntarily save. Mandatory measures, however, can cut water use by 50 percent or more under dire conditions, as Bay Area cities learned in the severe 1976-77 drought.

If the current drought is so bad, why wouldn’t all water utilities mandate additional water conservation?

Here are some common reasons (which some may call excuses):

  •  Lost water sales revenue. Less water used is less water sold, is less revenue to the agency and, potentially, less funding available for a contingency reserve should the drought worsen.
  • Desire to reserve tougher conservation actions for more severe drought conditions. Imposing draconian restrictions early in a drought leaves a utility with little means to signal greater urgency if conditions worsen.

    outdoor exhibit featuring water-wise garden beds with drought-tolerant plants is on display in the Farm section at the 2014 California State Fair. Photo by Kelly M. Grow, California Department of Water Resources

    The California Department of Water Resources (DWR) is exhibiting water-wise garden beds with drought-tolerant plants this summer at the California State Fair. Photo by Kelly M. Grow/DWR

  • Risks of “crying wolf.” A utility can lose face with the public if it imposes mandatory water conservation actions and severe drought conditions do not materialize locally. Lost credibility promotes opposition to new water rates and other utility actions and poses political risks to elected or appointed utility leaders.
  • Avoiding the expense of additional water conservation. Adding or strengthening water conservation actions often disrupts normal utility operations and adds expense. Enforcing mandatory becomes increasingly expensive.
  • Fear of losing long-term options. Continuing higher water use preserves options for water conservation in the future. Water for landscape irrigation, which accounts for half of urban water use, can be seen as a strategic reserve that can be tapped later for growth or used to offset supplies lost from water rights conflicts, climate change or stricter environmental rules. Water utilities are often conservative institutions, in part because they have little control over their long-term supplies and demands.
  • Taking advantage of good management (or good luck). The state has an interest in not punishing utilities that have managed their systems to reduce risks in a drought.
Lawn in California's Capitol Park, May 2014. Photo by John Chacon, California Department of Water Resources

Brown is the new green for lawns at the state Capitol, May 2014. Photo by John Chacon/DWR

Most large urban water utilities have detailed plans for stepping up conservation activities with worsening drought conditions. They begin with public education and voluntary conservation then gradually impose increasingly severe mandatory restrictions.

While many agricultural areas and a few communities face severe water shortages this year, many of California’s largest urban areas are in pretty good shape, thanks to smart water management and good luck.

In a water system as large and diverse as California’s, we should expect wide variability in utilities’ experiences and operations during a drought. However, mandatory restrictions for urban water users will become more widespread as the drought persists.

We often look for easy answers and villains in droughts and see water use by others as water wasted. Things are often more complicated.

Jay Lund is a professor of civil and environmental engineering and director of the Center for Watershed Sciences at UC Davis.

Further reading

Lund, J., “California droughts precipitate innovation,” CaliforniaWaterBlog.com, Jan. 21, 2014

Lund, J., J. Mount and E. Hanak, “Challenging myth and mirage in California’s drought,” CaliforniaWaterBlog.com, July 10, 2014

Lund, J.R. and R.U. Reed, “Drought Water Rationing and Transferable Rations,” Journal of Water Resources Planning and Management, ASCE, Vol. 31, No. 6, pp. 429-437, November 1995

Lund, J.R., “Totally RAD Urban Drought Management from California,” in J. L. Anderson (ed.), Proceedings of the 18th National Water Resources Conference, ASCE, pp. 532-536, May 1991

Weiser, M., Reese, P., “The Public Eye: Voluntary water conservation not effective, data show,” The Sacramento Bee, July 28, 2014

Weiser, M., “California adopts $500 criminal penalty for water waste,” The Sacramento Bee, July 16, 2014

 

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Reconciling ecosystem and economy

Ecologist Michael Rosenzweig kicked off a UC Davis series of public talks exploring a “reconciliation” approach to improving California’s aquatic habitat. Video: UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences.

A growing number of ecologists say we need to rethink how we go about “saving nature.” We should not attempt to restore a wounded meadow, estuary or wetland to some legendary pristine state, they say. Instead, resource managers should accept that human footprints are everywhere and manage ecosystems for the species and functions we desire.

The approach, known as “reconciliation ecology,” inspired a UC Davis seminar earlier this year on how to manage California’s water systems for both ecosystem and economic objectives. The Center for Watershed Sciences and the California Environmental Law & Policy Center at UC Davis lined up a series of nine public talks by ecologists, biologists, engineers, lawyers and environmental consultants. California water journalist Chris Austin summarizes the presentations.

By Chris Austin

Michael Rosenzweig, a University of Arizona ecologist who first articulated the concept of reconciliation ecology, kicked off the UC Davis seminar on Jan. 6 with his talk “Tactics for Conserving Diversity: Global Vertebrate Patterns Point the Way.”

Reconciliation ecology, in Rosenzweig’s own words, “is the science of inventing, establishing and maintaining new habitats to conserve species diversity in places where people live, work and play.”

Rosenzweig outlined the scientific basis for his assertion that human encroachment on wildlands will continue to cause species extinctions and loss of biodiversity at alarming rates. But his was also a message of hope: We can reverse the trend by changing our human-dominated landscapes in ways that favor desirable species.

Although Rosenzweig first coined the term in the early 2000s, the concept of reconciliation ecology is not new. Efforts to create habitat around the densely developed edges of San Francisco Bay have been underway for the past 25 or more years.  In the Feb. 10 seminar, Reconciling Ecosystem Goals for the San Francisco Bay, Letitia Grenier, a biologist specializing in landscape-scale planning, and Joe LaClair, chief planning officer for the Bay Conservation Development Commission, discuss the challenges of protecting both critical infrastructure — highways, airports, rails — and healthy ecosystems against climate-induced sea level rise in the Bay Area. Grenier is updating the San Francisco Estuary Institute’s 1999 blueprint for restoring of 100,000 acres of tidal marsh around the Bay.

Putah Creek: A ‘novel’ ecosystem

Aquatic habitat restoration projects traditionally have aimed to remove non-native plants and fish introduced by humans, but UC Davis fish biology professor Peter Moyle says most of these alien species do not cause significant harm. Instead, he said, they integrate with native species to form “novel ecosystems” that are often quite different from what historically might have existed.

Moyle and UC Davis researcher Melanie Truan told the story of one such novel ecosystem in their Jan. 13 talk, A Reconciliation Approach to Aquatic Ecosystems in California. Beginning in the 1980s, Davis area students, scientists and local residents took the local Putah Creek from a trashed waterway that was heavily mined for gravel to a healthy stream where both native and non-native fish flourish. Key to the success were changes in dam operations that provided more natural flows at biologically important times but with relatively small amounts of water.

Yolo Bypass: Using floodwaters to boost salmon populations

The seminar title and theme — Reconciling Ecosystem and Economy — was perhaps best illustrated by the Feb. 24 panel presentation, Farms, Floods, Fowl and Fish on the Yolo Bypass.

A consortium of private landowners, conservation groups, government agencies and researchers with the UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences is investigating how the heavily modified 57,000-acre floodplain used for flood control, farming and duck hunting could also be managed to rear Chinook salmon. Their recent studies indicate that the bypass would make a productive salmon nursery at relatively little cost to farmers. The floodway also is being considered for significant infrastructure changes and habitat restoration as part of the Bay Delta Conservation Plan.

UC Davis doctoral student Robyn Suddeth kicked off the panel discussion with a presentation of an optimization model she designed to explore when, where and how floodwaters might most economically be applied to manage all the diverse activities.

Robyn Suddeth presented a reconciliation approach to managing the Yolo Bypass for multiple environmental and economic objectives. Video: UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences 

The prospects and science of reconciliation in the Delta

With its numerous conflicting water demands and growing populations of invasive species and looming sea level rise, continued change in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta is certain. In her March 27 talk, Money, Water and Fish: Prospects for Reconciliation, Ellen Hanak, a senior fellow with the Public Policy Institute of California, explored the possibilities of taking a reconciliation approach in adapting to these changes, outlining the environmental, social, financial and legal issues involved.

The March 10 panel discussion, Science and Ecosystem Reconciliation in the Delta, focused on the multiple scientific efforts to improve the ecological functions in the Delta’s highly altered environment. The event brought together Peter Goodwin, lead scientist at the Delta Stewardship Council, ecologist Robin Grossinger of the San Francisco Estuary Institute, Stuart Siegel of the Wetlands and Water Resources consulting firm and scientist Valerie Connor of the State and Federal Contractors Water Agency.

California’s water system 

Managing for ‘co-equal’ goals. California’s vast network of water infrastructure delivers water from the north to irrigate millions of acres of farmland in the Central Valley and to support urban populations in the Bay Area and Southern California. 

These dams and reservoirs provide water for cities and farms as well as vital flood protection for downstream communities. At the same time, this infrastructure blocks access to upstream habitat for native species, alters their downstream habitat and disturbs natural flow patterns.

In recent years, plummeting populations of native species have meant tighter environmental restrictions and reductions in water available for human use. Clearly, California’s current system of water management is not working for either water suppliers or endangered species.

In the Jan. 27 seminar, Management, Economics and Engineering Perspectives on Reconciliation Ecology, Tim Quinn, executive director of the Association of California Water Agencies, and Jay Zeigler, director of external affairs at the Nature Conservancy, found much common ground in their views on balancing California’s co-equal goals of water system reliability and ecosystem restoration.

Jay Zeigler and Tim Quinn exchanged views on how better to managed California’s overall water system for a healthier environment and economy. Video: UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences

Unmanaged groundwater. Groundwater comprises about 30 percent of the state’s water supply in an average year, and far more in a drought year. Yet while the state regulates surface waters through a water right system, groundwater pumping continues to go largely unmanaged. Associate Justice Ronald B. Robie of the California Court of Appeal and Harrison “Hap” Dunning, UC Davis professor emeritus of environmental law, discussed history and environmental and economic tradeoffs in groundwater law in their March 3 seminar, Environmental Reconciliation and the Law.

Water law. Balancing the multiple uses of the state’s waters for both ecosystem and economic purposes is the task assigned to the State Water Resources Control Board, and it’s always complex and oftentimes controversial.

Michael Lauffer, chief counsel for the State Water Resources Control Board, gave a glimpse into the multiple environmental and economic considerations board members and staff must weigh in regulating water rights and water quality the Feb. 3 panel discussion,  A Regulator Perspective on Reconciliation Ecology. Brian Gray and Richard Frank, environmental law professors at UC Hastings College of Law and UC Davis School of Law, respectively, explained how the “reasonable use” and “public trust” doctrines of California water law often come into play in balancing environmental and economic water uses.

Videos of all nine one-hour presentations in the seminar series can be viewed here.

Chris Austin is the author of Maven’s Notebook, an independent online chronicle of California water policy, politics and science.

Further reading

Hanak, E., J. Lund, A. Dinar, B. Gray, R. Howitt, J. Mount, P. Moyle, and B. Thompson. (2011) Managing California’s Water: From Conflict to Reconciliation. San Francisco: Public Policy Institute of California.

Moyle, P. B., W. Bennett, J. Durand, W. Fleenor, B. Gray, E. Hanak, J. Lund, and J. Mount. 2012. “Where the Wild Things Aren’t: Making the Delta a Better Place for Native Species.” San Francisco: Public Policy Institute of California.

Moyle, P. B.  2013.  Novel Aquatic Ecosystems: The New Reality For Streams In California And Other Mediterranean Climate Regions. River Research and Applications.

Rosenzweig, M. 2003. Win-Win Ecology: How the Earth’s Species Can Survive in the Midst of Human Enterprise. Oxford University Press.

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Weathering the drought by drawing down the bank

Ground view showing drought conditions in agriculture field.

Drought conditions in crop field. Source: California Department of Water Resources

By Richard Howitt, Josué Medellín-Azuara, Duncan MacEwan and Jay Lund

Today, UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences economists join the California Department of Food and Agriculture in releasing a second, more comprehensive and forward-looking report estimating the effects of the California drought on farm production. (UC Davis news release, Video of national press briefing)

The study comes as California endures its third driest year on the 106-year record, and as agricultural, urban and environmental demands for water are at an all-time high.

Based on surveys of irrigation districts and modeling results, growers will lose about 6.6 million acre-feet of surface water availability for 2014 because of the drought. However, additional groundwater pumping is expected to make up for about 5 million acre-feet or 75 percent of the loss. This shift to groundwater, particularly in the Central Valley, will increase the proportion of farm water supplies from groundwater to more than 50 percent, up from about 30 percent the previous year.

The resulting net water shortage of 1.6 million acre-feet will cause losses of $810 million in crop revenue and $203 million in dairy and other livestock value, plus additional groundwater pumping costs of $454 million. These direct costs to agriculture total $1.5 billion. The total statewide economic cost of the 2014 drought is $2.2 billion, with a total loss of 17,100 seasonal, part-time, and full-time jobs.

The 2014 drought is responsible for the greatest absolute reduction in water availability for California agriculture ever seen. In addition, two of the major drought coping mechanisms in California — groundwater pumping and water markets — are being used with little information gathering on their long-term consequences. While our aggregate measures of groundwater depth over time and space are often good, our estimates of regional groundwater use are lacking.

The lack of groundwater pumping information precludes most forms of regional groundwater management. Water markets also are operating in a largely informal manner with reports of extremely high prices being paid throughout the Central Valley – prices at least three times those seen in the 2009 drought. The absence of a central clearinghouse for water-trade information prevents normal market information on current prices and quantities from being available to buyers and sellers.

Thanks to groundwater use and water market transfers, the overall California agricultural economy is weathering the worst drought in decades remarkably well. But the resilience is tenuous because the state’s uniquely unmanaged system of groundwater use runs like an unlimited savings account.

Failure to balance the checkbook – replenishing groundwater in wet years – is putting the nation’s produce basket at risk, particularly California’s more profitable permanent crops such as almonds and wine grapes.

Groundwater availability and use is the key to agricultural prosperity in droughts.

Statistically, the drought is likely to continue through 2015 – regardless of El Niño conditions. If the drought continues, groundwater substitution will remain the primary response to surface water shortage. But the ability to pump groundwater will lessen and pumping costs will climb as water levels fall.

A continued drought also increases agriculture’s vulnerability. Urban water users are for the most part adequately stocked this year, but they are likely to buy water from agricultural areas if the drought persists.

Several public policy improvements could enhance California’s ability to deal with future droughts:

Groundwater measurement and management. Currently California is the only western state without measurements of major groundwater use. A first step to local groundwater management — as opposed to groundwater regulation — is to measure pumping. Two bills under consideration in the state Legislature would provide incentives for more management of groundwater, helping to assure support for crops during a drought.

Environmental Impact Reports for water trades. Water trading is another key to successful drought management.  Some water trades can induce adverse environmental impacts, so EIRs are needed. However, environmental concerns should not be used to block trades for non-environmental reasons. This happened to several proposed water trades during the 2009 drought. A policy solution is to define a programmatic EIR for water transfers that can be assessed prior to a drought. If the pre-drought EIR is approved, then the transfer can proceed, with any subsequent damages adjudicated after the fact. This policy change would lower the costs of water transfers and provide greater predictability and flexibility during a drought.

A water trade clearinghouse (or ISO). The surface water distribution system in California is an interdependent network of individually run canals, reservoirs and rivers. Coordinated operating agreements and contracts exist among some agencies, but moving water efficiently under drought conditions could be improved. California’s water system has parallels to the state’s electricity grid system before its reorganization. Today, California’s electric power is routed and dispatched with a market and prices managed by an Independent System Operator (ISO). A similar water ISO might operate to improve adaptability and responsiveness (Hanak et al 2011). It would take significant federal and state level political impetus to implement a similar system for water, but it remains a promising policy innovation.

We should further develop drought water markets to re-distribute water to crops with the highest economic value while compensating selling farmers. And we need to treat groundwater like a reserve bank account so it will be there to sustain our agricultural bounty in future droughts.

Richard Howitt is a professor emeritus of agricultural and resource economics, Josué Medellín-Azuara is a senior researcher and Jay Lund is a professor of civil and environmental engineering with the UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences. Duncan MacEwan is with ERA Economics in Davis, Calif. They are co-authors of the report, Economic Analysis of the 2014 Drought for California Agriculture, which was released July 15, 2014.

Crop Revenue Reductions for 2014 Drought, Central Valley
 Crop Acreage Reductions for 2014 Drought, Central Valley
Difference in idle Central Valley cropland between 2014 and 2011, relative to the total agricultural land in each region. Prepared by authors using information from the Satellite Mapping consortium project of DWR, NASA Ames Research, CSU-Monterrey Bay, USGS and the USDA. Source:

Difference in idle Central Valley cropland, 2011-2014, relative to the total agricultural land in
each region. Prepared by authors using information from the satellite mapping consortium project of DWR, USGs, USDA, NASA
Ames Research and CSU-Monterrey Bay. 

Further reading

Lund, J.R., Mount, J. (2014). Will California’s drought extend into 2015? California WaterBlog. June 15, 2014

Lund, J.R., Medellin-Azuara, J., Harter, T. (2014). Why California’s agriculture needs groundwater management. California WaterBlog. May 26, 2014

Lund, J.R., et al. Taking agriculture conservation seriously. California WaterBlog. March 15, 2011

Grabert, V.K., Harter, T., Parker, T. (2014). Modernizing California’s groundwater management. California WaterBlog. June 22, 2014

Howitt, R.E., Medellin-Azuara, J., MacEwan, D., Lund, J.R. and Sumner, D.A. (2014). Economic Analysis of the 2014 Drought for California Agriculture. Center for Watershed Sciences, University of California, Davis, Calif. 20p

Howitt, R.E., Medellin-Azuara, J., MacEwan, D., Lund, J.R. (2014). Preliminary 2014 Drought Economic Impact Estimates in Central Valley Agriculture. Center for Watershed Sciences, University of California, Davis, Calif. 6p

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