Water giveaways during a drought invite conflict

In the summer of 2014, UC Davis researchers recorded the effects of the drought on California streams, including this isolated pool on Hatch Creek near Don Pedro Reservoir. Photo by Andy Bell, UC Davis

In the summer of 2014, UC Davis researchers recorded the drought’s effects on California streams, including this isolated pool on Hatch Creek near Don Pedro Reservoir. Photo by Andy Bell, UC Davis

                                                This article first ran in the San Francisco Chronicle on March 20, 2015.

By Jay Lund and Peter Moyle

When labor is scarce, people move to better jobs with higher wages. When land is scarce, landowners are offered higher prices for its use. When drought makes water scarcer in California, those with senior water rights are offered more money to move their water to other users.

But fish are asked to give up their water for free.

California would do better if it cultivated a more civilized ethic where there is no free water during a drought. Perhaps we should treat environmental uses of water more as a matter of economics, to help the environment and the economy.

This year and last year, the State Water Resources Control Board relaxed environmental protections for fish to export more water from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta for farms and cities. Reducing fish flows without compensation during a drought has some attractions, but overall seems like a risky idea.

On the plus side, it’s a principle that, during a drought, everyone should get less water, including the environment. The reality is that some small reductions in environmental flows may not harm fish, but would have great economic value to cities and farms. Variability in flows is natural for many of California’s native ecosystems. Droughts might provide useful variability, if properly managed.

However, reductions in environmental flows during drought usually have costs, including:

Potential direct harm to fish in the short term, and in the longer term, severely reducing native fish populations and sometimes making it easier for invasive species to become established.

Risks that additional native fish or other aquatic species will become legally listed as threatened or endangered, which can reduce long-term water withdrawals for economic water uses.

Encouraging water fights, rather than using negotiation or markets to rebalance and reallocate water. This is uncivilized and encourages greater conflicts over water.

The amount of environmental flows that cities and farms will gain this year is relatively small, about 40,000 acre-feet of water. But in a drought year, 40,000 acre-feet of water south of the delta is probably worth more than $1,000 an acre-foot or about $40 million. While this is a tiny proportion of agricultural production or urban economies, those next in line for this water will find it worth fighting for.

The high value of small amounts of water during droughts is a harsh challenge for science, environmental advocates and those interested in thoughtful water policy. How can we make this a more civilized choice?

Let the fish sell their water.

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 fish on drought-stricken Horton Creek, near Sonora, in August 2014. He  feared the species — Red Hills roach — had gone extinct because of the drought. Photo by Karin Higgins/UC Davis

That is, convert some drought portion of environmental flows to a marketable water quantity, owned by the fish agencies. This would allow environmental water uses to be fairly compensated by those gaining from reductions in environmental flows, just as other high-priority water rights holders are compensated for their reductions in water use during a drought. This seems more fair, gives incentives to water users to behave better, and encourages conflicts to be speedily negotiated instead of indefinitely litigated. [1]

Prices could be set by the fair market value of the water made available, by having a regulatory agency fix or negotiate a fee, or by assessing the cost of compensatory environmental actions such as buying water for environmental purposes elsewhere in the state or creating a reserve fund to aid native fish after the drought.

Creating such an environmental water market during a drought would help limit the reductions in environmental river flows, while ensuring that those negatively impacted by such reductions receive some compensation.

For California, even partial markets for environmental water would satisfy the state’s stated “co-equal” environmental and economic goals for water management.

Overall, fish have suffered at least as much as humans during the drought, certainly in terms of habitat loss.

We can’t equalize the burdens of severe drought across all water uses, but we can share the pain more fairly in ways that help fish and other species that depend on our rivers for their survival.

Jay Lund is director of the UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences and a professor of civil and environmental engineering. Peter Moyle, the Center’s associate director, is a professor of fish biology.


[1] Reductions in environmental flows could be compensated through existing legal mechanisms such as negotiated agreements with water users; fixed penalties for violating flow and water quality standards; or Endangered Species Act regulatory actions — adding environmental market provisions to biological opinions, incidental take permits or habitat conservation plans (Lund et al, Feb. 2014).

Further reading

Lund, J. and P. Moyle. “Is shorting fish of water during drought good for water users?” California WaterBlog. June 3, 2014 

Lund, J., E. Hanak, B. Thompson, B. Gray, J. Mount and K. Jessoe (2014), “Why give away fish flows for free during a drought?” California WaterBlog. Feb. 11, 2014

Manfree, A. “Drought Journal: Search for Sierra fish goes from bad to worse.” California WaterBlog. Aug. 18, 2014

Moyle, P. “Saving California’s salmon during a severe drought.” California WaterBlog. Feb. 17, 2014.

This entry was posted in Drought, reconciliation, Water Markets and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to Water giveaways during a drought invite conflict

  1. Mike Wade says:

    That’s is an interesting concept, quantifying a specific amount of environmental water that can be sold during times of drought. How much water IS there in the the environment? Perhaps quantifying percentages of California’s water that are allocated to agricultural, urban and environmental uses would help get this discussion going. And if environmental water is destined for the market then environmental water managers should be held to the same standard that urban and agricultural water managers are. That means adopting and enforcing environmental water management plans to make sure the people of California are getting the value they have invested in their environment.

    Mike Wade
    California Farm Water Coalition

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  4. Roger Masuda, Turlock, CA says:

    I first met Dr. Moyle in the late 1970’s during the USFWS proceeding to set Hetch Hetchy trout flows and then we both worked on Lower Tuolumne River fish flows issues. I have agreed with many of his opinions. I think the concept in this article was discussed back in the 1980’s. This article in essence proposes that mandated regulatory fish flows would consist of at least two components: (1) a base flow, which is the water the fish really need and (2) extra, nice to have fish flow water. The fish agencies would own the fish flow water they got for free and could sell the “extra, nice to have water” to the highest bidder during droughts or presumably at any time a fish agency would like money to supplement its budget. This concept would at least require fish agencies to disclose how much of the fish water they are demanding is really only “nice to have water.”

    Article’s statement, “But fish are asked to give up their water for free.” I recall in those earlier discussions of the concept, the real problem from a water agency perspective was that the fish agencies would whenever possible demand more water for free as part, for example, of a Bay-Delta Water Quality Control Plan or of a FERC hydro relicensing proceeding. How many times has that happened over the last 30 years? The amount of “extra, nice to have water” would significantly increase over time (e.g., triple) at no cost to the fish agencies. The fish agencies would in turn be able to sell that free water to the highest bidder.

    I am a big supporter of encouraging the development of creative solutions to complex problem or to even recycle old ideas for a new generation of water and fish people, but I think this particular creative concept has problems.

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  8. Dane Locke says:

    If they want the fish to have a natural environment then the delta outflow should never exceed river inflow . The predatory fish introduced by DFG (stripped and black bass) need to be eliminated from the delta . Those two invasive species are are in conflict with protection of the smelt and salmon restoration . There should be no size or catch limit on either . The last ruling on the ESA said “whatever the cost , DFG has a duty to protect the fish” . Fish have dealt with changes in water flows before man was here , they will deal with it now . The salmon and smelt cannot deal with an introduced apex predator . While the DFG is at it , an injunction to stop all treated and partially treated sewage from going into the delta needs to happen ASAP . Where do they think the nitrate contamination comes from ? Remember , “whatever the cost” … Maybe they could use the 70 billion from the train to nowhere to upgrade the sewage systems for every city along the delta that likes to dump their Sh#t in it ? Just a sane idea , but whoever said our regulators would take the sane approach ?

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  9. I have previously written about the problematic notion of re-selling environmental water at gouging, greedy prices, that farmers already partly paid for, back to farmers to make them pay twice for it.
    See:
    1. California’s Cap and Trade Water Proposal: A Planner’s Market – Part 1
    2. California’s Cap and Trade Water Proposal: Sky-High Water Auctions – Part 2
    Both published at MasterResource.org. Feb. 20 – 21, 2014.

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