California's Underground Water War

It’s also started to look for more supply. “It is not an option for a water district to run out of water,” said Tom Mosby, the general manager of the Montecito Water District. After considering various options, Montecito joined a deal with some of its neighboring towns, including Santa Barbara. The Central Coast Water Authority brokered a deal on their behalf through the State Water Project to buy water from the Biggs West-Gridley Water District north of the Sacramento Delta. While the water ultimately came from rice farmers who agreed to sell their shares of water and fallow their fields, that level of complexity is typical of such deals.

The choice farmers face in California, either watering a crop or fallowing land to sell the water “is all or nothing,” said Young.

That’s true, said Thad Bettner, who facilitates water transfers in his role as general manager of the Glenn Colusa Irrigation District in the northern Sacramento Valley. Governing agencies don’t recognize conservation as an allowable measure to make more water available for sale, he said. Neither can they use water they’ve conserved the following year. “We use what we can use and that’s it,” he said.

Young said that’s ridiculous. “It should be possible to just apply water more efficiently and still grow a crop and, at the same time, sell the savings,” he said.

An optimized water rights system would remove penalties for efficiency. “At the moment, a person who is efficient runs the risk of losing their water right,” he said. “Changing it around, as Australia did 20 years ago … if you save the water, it’s yours to sell. That inspired lots of innovation.”

Rather than being penalized, efficient water users were rewarded. “The value of the senior rights in Australia increased 20 percent per annum for the first decade because of all the incentives and opportunities for people to make money from saving water,” Young said.

Australia’s farmers and urban water users are now using less water than ever before, leaving more for the environment and as a buffer in times of drought. The government also helped eased this transition to using less by putting up billions for farmers to invest in more efficient irrigation technology and to buy water rights for the environment from willing sellers.

It sounds grand. But in California, “there’s no way—without something way more dramatic [than the current drought]—we’re going to see an Australia-like overhaul of our water rights,” said Hanak of the California Public Policy Institute. “People are pretty invested in the seniority-based system here.” While she acknowledged that “Australia is very interesting,” she said it made some mistakes along the way too. Young admits to trial and error and said that governments changing policies now can learn from Australia’s experience.

“There were a lot of arguments, a lot of fear, a lot of confusion as we went forward,” Young said during a Circle of Blue web conference in March. But “the final outcome is something I think Australia can be very proud of. It’s a world-leading system.”

* * *

For now, Californians are hoping the new groundwater bill will ease supply tensions and conflict. But supporters also hope it will help the state avoid future conflicts as climate change advances.

In California, the Sierra snowpack that has acted as a handy storehouse, holding winter water and releasing it slowly into summer. But as the planet warms and more snow falls as rain, the snowpack could be reduced by 70 to 90 percent.

“We’ll lose one-third to one-half of our current storage capacity, which is snowpack,” said Marcus. While the Farm Bureau advocates more reservoirs, “we’re never going to replace that with large on-stream storage,” she said. “We’ve already dammed most rivers.”

The biggest opportunity for new storage is groundwater basins, she said. The goal of this new bill is not to just stop groundwater depletion, but to create incentives to replenish these underground basins and keep them full as a water management tool.

If we use groundwater basins intelligently, we can make up for snowpack by getting our act together now, she said. “It’s the state’s future at stake.”

 


This post appears courtesy of Climate Confidential.

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Erica Gies is a writer, editor, and photographer, and the co-founder of Climate Confidential.

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