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We Need to Fight Drought With Better Data

In drawing attention to dwindling water supplies the drought has highlighted our urgent need for better data to drive stronger water management decisions. The state has started on the right course with recent regulations regarding groundwater and water diversions, but we still have a ways to go.

Written by Published on Read time Approx. 3 minutes
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California is managing its water system like an unbalanced checkbook. There are thousands of “withdrawals” and “deposits” from stressed surface water and groundwater supplies, but no sufficient accounting system to understand the overall “balance” of water resources. Just as that’s a poor way to manage a bank account, it’s a recipe for waking up one day without any water.

In the age where checks are meticulously tracked electronically, it’s remarkable that we still don’t have a complete picture of California’s water resources.

But that’s starting to change.

With the passage of the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA) in 2014, the state is finally on a path to understand better the water balance of priority groundwater basins so that they can be better managed. A second law requiring that well logs collected since 1949 be made publicly available will further support these groundwater protection efforts. It only took 65 years!

Now it’s time to focus on protecting our surface waters.

California Senate Bill 88, approved last year, authorizes the State Water Resources Control Board to develop measurement and reporting requirements for a substantial number of surface water diverters (such as farmers or local water suppliers, which are authorized to redirect water from rivers, lakes and other surface waters to meet their water needs).

Adopted in January by the State Board, the new regulations require more frequent reporting and measurement of diversions from an expanded group of water diverters. The state estimates that approximately 12,000 water rights holders are now on the hook for reporting. This action is a big step forward for smarter water management in California.

Historically, there hasn’t been much incentive to track water withdrawals, let alone implement changes resulting from data being collected. Until now, only a small subset of diverters were required to report diversions every three years, and a loophole allowed 70 percent of them to avoid actually measuring the volume of diverted water, according to the State Board.

But the protracted drought has brought falling water supplies to the fore and highlighted the urgent need for better data that can drive stronger decisions on water management. For instance, last year the State Board issued water curtailments to certain senior water rights holders due to limited flows and competing beneficial uses. That’s led to much criticism of the current water rights system – and legal battles have ensued.

To manage the prioritization of our water resources better, we need to understand them better. “Knowing where, when and how much water is being used is essential to managing the system fairly for all,” State Water Board chair Felicia Marcus said recently. “We’ve historically not had a complete picture, and these past two years have made it even more essential to take this common sense move.”

“Common sense” is right.

Not surprisingly, there’s been some pushback on the regulations. Some have argued that the capital costs for installing and maintaining these measurement technologies will be a financial hardship, but the State Water Board has attempted to ease this burden. The regulation includes a tiered implementation system based on diverted water volume. Smaller water users have less stringent requirements for device accuracy and monitoring frequency, which should lead to lower costs. The State Board has also provided stakeholders with a list of potential grant funding opportunities.

The regulation also includes a provision for “alternate compliance” if a diverter can prove that it is “unreasonably expensive” to implement the regulation. In these legitimate cases, the state should provide financial assistance, instead of forgoing data collection all together.

To ensure the new law delivers on its promise, I’d also suggest:

  • The State Board ensure that the data is being reported in ways that enable its fullest use. Put simply, data should be actionable, not just collected and put on the shelf.
  • Groundwater and surface water data should be evaluated together to understand our state’s water resources more fully.
  • Data on return flows, as well as water quality and environmental flow needs, should be collected and evaluated.

The bottom line: robust water use data will lead to smarter water management decisions that will help ensure sustainable water supplies for California’s future. We should support any and all efforts in this regard.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Water Deeply.

Top image: In this Aug. 29, 2013 file photo, Fresno’s water division worker Micha Berry, unscrews the motor that sits on top of a groundwater well in Fresno, Calif. A law passed in 2014 will help the state better understand groundwater resources and prevent overdrafting. (Gosia Wozniacka, Associated Press)

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