4/29/15: Who Gets Water: Part 2

Who actually gets water in California’s agricultural sector?

In the wake of Governor Brown’s order for cities to conserve 25% of water supply compared to last year’s use, everybody’s talking about whether “California Agriculture” is being let off the hook or whether farmers are the biggest victims of the drought. Answering that question requires asking another one. We all know by now that about 80% of the water used by humans in California goes to agriculture. But, is all “agriculture” treated the same in the way California allocates water to different agricultural users?

It’s true that some agricultural water users are receiving little or none of their contracted supplies in this fourth drought year. This fact is cited over and over by pundits and reporters to suggest that all agriculture in the state is suffering from the drought. But what they don’t explain is that those experiencing the most severe effects are the water users who signed long-term contracts to buy water from the giant federal Central Valley Project (CVP) or the State Water Project (SWP) when those projects were built and who are now lower in priority in California’s antiquated water rights system. Other large sectors of California agriculture, especially those who hold higher priority water rights but are serviced by the federal or state projects, are not getting severe cutbacks. These senior water rights holders are getting much more water than nature ever would have provided because of water stored by these publicly financed water projects. For example, the SWP will provide up to 100% of requests by senior water rights holders on the Feather River (900,000 acre-feet) (1), released from water stored in Oroville. The CVP’s current allocation for its junior agricultural and municipal contractors is 0 and 25%, respectively; in contrast, allocations to its senior water rights holders (the Sacramento settlement and San Joaquin exchange contractors, who receive up to 2.1 MAF and 840 TAF, respectively) will be 75% (2).
Many of these same senior water right holders will also get an added benefit in 2015 as a result of the state’s decision to suspend Bay-Delta water quality and environmental flow standards. In suspending those regulations the State Water Resources Control Board was candid about who wins:
“…the primary beneficiaries of the changes will be water users. Water supply benefits include allocations to senior water right holders and senior water supply contractors on the Sacramento Stanislaus, and San Joaquin Rivers…. Increased water supplies available to users upstream of the Delta are also likely to benefit users south of the Delta who engage in transfers…" (3)
It’s rare to see public policy stated so clearly and unequivocally. This environmental insult, coming on top of the drought’s very low precipitation and the routine diversion of 50-90% of runoff over the past few decades, eliminates even the already thin lifeline of support for fish, wildlife, and the water quality benefits provided by current regulations. In 2015, the State of California is risking the extinction of one or more Bay-Delta species to protect some irrigators who invested heavily in tree crops.

Possibly the best water rights in the state right now are those of the San Joaquin Exchange Contractors. When Friant Dam was built, they accepted free CVP water pumped from the Delta in “exchange” for senior San Joaquin River water rights; they get San Joaquin River water from Friant Dam if the supply from the Delta does not meet their contract amount, which occurred the past two years. Due to this lucrative arrangement, the Exchange Contractors get – for free – as much as five times the amount of water available from the river had the CVP never been built. (4)

Many senior water rights holders turn around and sell water at a very nice profit to others, especially the junior contractors who are partly or totally dependent on surface supplies from the CVP and SWP. (The juniors are some of the same folks whose mining of groundwater has made the southern San Joaquin Valley the most overdrafted area in the state, which takes a little wind out of the sails of the argument that importing more water will mitigate the groundwater problem). So, incredible as it may seem, agricultural production (especially nut crops) has increased during the drought (more about this below).

This aspect of our water rights system may have made more sense when it developed during the Gold Rush. 

But as it stands, the current system makes about as much sense as allowing owners of older houses to use as much water as they want while shutting off water to their neighbors whose homes were built more recently.

Californians pull together during disasters, and all should share equally when times are tough. Right now, the unique living resources that are our state’s treasures and birthright to future generations – our rivers, wetlands, the Bay estuary, and the fish and wildlife they support – have had their lifelines cut, while the state’s senior water right holders – the one-percenters- enjoy windfall profits by growing expensive commodities and selling excess water to their desperate neighbors. Governor Brown recently acknowledged that if the drought continues, we might need to examine our water rights systems and consider how to more fairly distribute a limited resource. Governor, the environment can’t wait another year to get its fair share.

What do they do with that water?

California is a big state, and it takes a lot of fresh water to support human activities. As is well documented, 79% of human water use in California is for agriculture, and 21% is distributed for all other uses by people and industry in the state. Half of the municipal water use (9% of total human fresh water use) is for outdoor watering. (5) One half of one percent waters 91,000 acres of golf courses. Mining uses 1%. (6)
Whether you consider mitigating the effects of the drought or the prospects for long-term sustainable water use in California, in order to make a real difference you’ve got to look at irrigation for agricultural uses, which dwarfs all other uses, viable or not. And the biggest, most disturbing change in agriculture has been the explosive growth in the amount of irrigated acreage devoted to permanent crops like almonds, pistachios, and walnuts in the Central Valley in recent years.
For instance, almond acreage has more than doubled in the last 20 years to over 860,000 acres, and over 10,000 new acres are still being planted each year during the current drought. (5) Anyone driving down I-5 from the Delta to Kern County can see that we have converted a vast area that was once grassland or annual cropland into irrigated woodland. High water use crops such as these are often served by new groundwater wells, contributing to the San Joaquin Valley’s massive overdraft problem. Expensive wells are drilled, nut trees are planted, and while the ground below literally sinks, destroying private wells and public infrastructure, investors reap the profits from the rapidly rising price of these commodities. 
No single crop – almonds, pistachios, grapes, or even thirstier crops like alfalfa or hay – is the villain. The dominance of a particular crop changes with each new decade. The decision of what to plant is an investment with calculated returns and risks. Whether or not there is enough water and honeybees to actually produce almonds is an annual risk. However the risks are supposed to be assumed by the investor, not the public – at least in theory. No one wants to see dying trees during a drought, but is it smart, ethical, or even legal to cut environmental flows and risk losing our native fish and wildlife in order to protect risky investments by irrigators? Should we encourage farmers to make planting decisions based on government bailout via suspending regulations, or on reliable and predictable rules and a fair price for water? As long as the low price of water and the inequitable water allocation system encourages these investments, there will be pressure to bail investors out when supplies are tight by changing the rules.

Who loses? All of us.

The environment’s not the only victim. Some rural communities are experiencing shortages of water for drinking and hygiene. The hardest-hit communities in the Southern San Joaquin Valley rely on wells that are often adjacent to the biggest agricultural water users who overdraft and pollute the aquifers that are the source of drinking water for rural communities. Some water interests have tried to solve these devastating water shortages by urging the suspension of the state’s minimal environmental protections – even though they played absolutely no part in causing the shortages. In fact, critical human health and safety needs that are serviced by water project deliveries are being fully met during this drought, as they should be – and as our water quality and environmental regulations are designed to safeguard. Indeed, the CVP and SWP’s minimum allowable Delta export pumping ensures that at least twice as much water as needed for public health and safety is shipped to the San Joaquin Valley and Southern California.
But it’s the fish and wildlife of the San Francisco Bay estuary, and those who depend on them for livelihood, that continue to take the biggest hit from our water allocation decisions. That’s why populations of our native fisheries are at the lowest or near-record low levels in 2015. That’s why the April Kodiak trawl survey found only one Delta smelt – once the most common fish in the estuary – the lowest number ever recorded for this month. The time is long past due to protect the investment we all have in a healthy Bay-Delta environment before its unique fish and wildlife are lost forever.
Next: What’s at stake for the Bay-Delta ecosystem when we allocate water inequitably? And what can we do about it?

  1. http://www.water.ca.gov/swpao/wsc.cfm
  2. http://www.usbr.gov/mp/PA/water_contractors/latest_Water_Contractors.pdf; also, http://www.usbr.gov/mp/PA/water/docs/CVP_Water_Contracts_Fact_Sheet.pdf
  3. State Water Resources Control Board. 2015. April 6, 2015, Temporary Urgency Change Order http://www.waterboards.ca.gov/waterrights/water_issues/programs/drought/docs/tucp/2015/tucp_order040615.pdf
  4. Peter Vorster, The Bay Institute, personal communication.
  5. Public Policy Institute of California. 2015. Water For Cities http://www.ppic.org/content/pubs/report/R_415WFCR.pdf
  6. US Geological Survey. NWIS Water Use in California 2010 http://ca.water.usgs.gov/water_use/
  7. California Department of Food and Agriculture. 2014. 2013 California Almond Acreage Report http://www.nass.usda.gov/Statistics_by_State/California/Publications/Fruits_and_Nuts/201405almac.pdf