Does the California constitution hold the key to solving the state's “water crisis”?


Western watermasters are the folks who make sure all water right holders on an irrigation system get a fair share of available water. Usually they like to maintain low profiles. That helps with a job which has potential to engender conflict, lawsuits and even violence.

Watermaster Craig Wilson recently raised his profile when he spoke out about California’s water woes. He stirred up a hornet's nest for some of the actions he is recommending.

The recommendations are contained in a report - “The Reasonable Use Doctrine & Agricultural Water Use Efficiency” – which Wilson, who is watermaster in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, presented to the State Water Resources Control Board in mid-January. The report focuses on agriculture and calls for using the California constitutional prohibition on “unreasonable use”of water to reduce agriculture’s consumptive water use and thereby solve California’s water deficit.

Dewatered rivers and streams are a common site in western agricultural valleys.

This is the Scott River in late July 2009 when ditches were full and irrigation was in full swing.

To fully appreciate Wilson’s recommendations, a little background is necessary.  In California, watermasters' regulating services are provided by the state when 15 percent of those water right holders utilizing stream diversion structures (or pumps where groundwater has been judged to be interconnected with surface stream flow) request the service, or when a state court orders that the service be implemented.

As an employee of the State Department of Water Resources, California watermasters can also act to prevent the waste or unreasonable use of water which are both illegal under California Water law. Historically, however, watermasters have seen themselves as working for the water diverters. Consequently, actions by watermasters challenging unreasonable use and waste have been rare at best.  Several web searches failed to unearth even one such action by a California watermaster. 

That could change, however, if recommendations from Wilson are implemented by the State Water Resources Control Board. Here’s how Wilson justified focusing his report on agriculture:      

The focus on agriculture in this paper is grounded in two principles:  small changes in agricultural water use efficiency can produce significant amounts of “wet” water and California’s agricultural sector, which has tested and proven many conservation practices, is in a position to identify economically justified and locally cost effective water management techniques that retain the value of return flows to both downstream users and other environmental beneficiaries.

 According to the USDA’s research arm, “Agriculture is a major user of ground and surface water in the United States, accounting for 80 percent of the nation's consumptive water use and over 90 percent in many Western states.” In the West the bulk of Ag water use comes in summer and early fall – the last part of the dry season, the times when salmon run in many of the region’s rivers and when western water supplies are most strained. 

Wilson’s report makes seven very specific recommendations for how to apply the “reasonable use” provisions of the California constitution to solve the state’s water shortage. The focus is on reducing consumptive agricultural water use without reducing agricultural productivity by insisting that irrigated agriculture and those providing irrigation water implement specific water conservation and water use efficiency measures.  

Environmental and fishing interests praised the report as did the Pacific Institute – an think tank that focuses on water conservation. In a recent paper, the Institute’s Peter Gleick examines options for western water and concludes that “Installing efficient irrigation technologies, such as drip systems and improved soil moisture monitoring and management, can reduce water use and increase agricultural yield.” Gleick also points out that “nearly 50 percent of all crops in California are still grown with inefficient flood irrigation. Converting these crops, particularly vineyards, orchards, and vegetables, to more efficient drip and microsprinklers, could save a significant volume of water, while increasing agricultural production and income.” 

Agricultural interests, however, dispute Gleick’s findings and Wilson's recommendations. According to Mike Wade who represents the California Farm Water Coalition (an Ag lobby group):

The report by the Delta Watermaster takes California in a new and potentially dangerous direction with respect to agricultural water use efficiency. The relationship between on-farm irrigation efficiency and true basin-level water conservation can be very confusing. Basin-wide efficiency can be quite high relative to on-farm efficiency due to re-use of water from farm to farm. You simply cannot apply an estimate of on-farm water savings to an entire basin to estimate net transferable water conservation. Irrigation experts at California State University, Fresno, Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo and UC Davis have identified this same mistake in other reports that claim millions of acre-feet of potential savings using this erroneous method.


This is the same argument irrigation interests have used for decades to forestall reform of agricultural water use.  But even if one accepts the argument, the result is reduction -- not elimination -- of potential water savings. Arguing over the numbers obscures the core issue of whether irrigators are using water reasonably given contemporary conditions and available technologies.

If irrigation efficiency measures promise water savings without reducing yields why hasn’t big agriculture embraced and implemented them more extensively? One could argue that implementing new technologies requires an investment which many agricultural enterprises simply can't afford. Fair enough. But there are several Farm Bill Conservation Programs which could be used to get the job done and others which specifically promise to increase agricultural water use efficiency. Numerous investigation of these programs conducted by USDA’s Inspector General and the Government Accountability Office, however, found that Farm Bill conservation programs are rife with waste, fraud and abuse. The USDA Inspector General found problems persist even after they have been identified by auditors and reforms have been ordered.

When USDA conservation programs do address water use the result is typically not savings but expanded water access and more consumptive use. Here are two examples:

  • The 2002 Farm Bill included $50 million to reduce on-farm water use in the Klamath River Basin. But as I've documented elsewhere, most of the funds were used to develop a second irrigation source - groundwater - or to extend the irrigation season. The result was more agricultural consumptive water use rather than less.

  • The environmental quality incentives program, known as EQIP, was used more recently to funnel taxpayer money to San Joaquin irrigators.   Many irrigators used the funds not to increase water use efficiency (and thereby reduce water use) but rather to exploit new sources of water - primarily groundwater.  Sooner or later increased groundwater pumping translates into lower stream flows and less surface water availability.    

The abuse of EQIP water conservation funding, however, does not tell us why California and other western irrigation interests have not embraced real water use efficiency. After all, these folks have great influence over the Farm Bill and could shape that legislation to funnel funds toward investments that will lead to substantial water savings. If the intent of irrigation interests is to become water brokers, however, stonewalling improvements in irrigation efficiency makes sense. 

Western irrigation interests are focused on maximizing the amount of water they control in order to make money now and in the future by selling or leasing that water to others. If these folks can continue to control 80% to 90 percent of the West’s dry season water, then not only cities but also the survival of living rivers and the fish within them will depend on leasing water from irrigators turned water brokers. If selling water is the goal, then it makes sense to continue to use water inefficiently and to use government assistance to gain control of even more water.

I believe this is the only way to rationally explain the behavior of western irrigation interests. Defining inefficient water use as “unreasonable” -- as proposed by Wilson -- could force Big Ag to implement efficient irrigation systems. That would result in these interests having less water to sell or lease to those who need it. And that is why agricultural interests are lining up to discredit Wilson’s report and to oppose implementation of his recommendations by the State Water Resources Control Board. 

Since white Europeans first colonized the West the battle over who controls the region’s water has been ongoing. There are no indications that will change anytime soon.

Essays in the Range blog are not written by the High Country News. The authors are solely responsible for the content.

Felice Pace has lived in the Klamath River Basin since 1975. For 15 years, he worked for and led the Klamath Forest Alliance as Program Coordinator, Executive Director and Program Director. He remains part of the Alliance’s Core Group, and now consults with environmental and indigenous organizations on fund raising and program development. He currently resides at Klamath Glen, near the mouth of the Klamath River.

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