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The Chore of Understanding Water Rights Just Got a Little Easier

It is notoriously difficult to access and interpret information on water rights. Water Sage, a new web-based service now offered in California, aims to take the sting out of this task for individuals and institutions alike.

Written by Matt Weiser Published on Read time Approx. 7 minutes
California drought salmon1
Jim Doerksen navigates Mark West Creek adjoining his property near Santa Rosa in Sonoma County, Calif., on June 10, 2015. The state wanted wineries in the area to begin reporting how much groundwater they pump amid concerns that heavy water use was draining creeks like this one. Property owners like Doerksen have historically had difficulty accessing and analyzing water rights and groundwater information due to cumbersome and inconvenient public records.Kent Porter, Santa Rosa Press Democrat via AP

Who owns the water? And how much do they use? These are simple questions. But answering them has never been easy, thanks to complicated laws, cumbersome public records and byzantine bureaucracies.

Unlike property records, in many states those covering water have never been very accessible. And reporting requirements imposed on water users are often weak and poorly enforced, meaning records are often patchy and vague.

Searching for answers usually means a time-consuming slog through public records – sometimes on paper – that yields unsatisfying results. In the case of groundwater, the search is even more difficult.

Water Sage aims to simplify the task. It’s a web-based search tool offered by Ponderosa Advisors LLC, based in Denver, Colorado. It claims to be the only system of its kind that integrates all available water and land ownership data into a single platform, enabling users to research, visualize and analyze information in minutes.

The system enables users to tap into all of a state’s surface water rights, groundwater wells, measurement gauges, land use and ownership – all on a map-based interface. Data can be exported into Google Earth, GIS-compatible formats and Excel files for detailed analysis.

Water Sage has just expanded to include California, after being available in Colorado, Wyoming, Montana and Texas for some time. In these other states, the company charges $99 for an hour of access – a rate aimed at the private property owner who wants to understand nearby water management. Monthly rates vary by state and are aimed at law firms, environmental groups, developers and other institutions. The cost for California users is currently negotiated on an individual basis.

To learn more about the system, Water Deeply recently spoke with Kelly Bennett, managing partner of Ponderosa Advisors.

Water Deeply: How did Water Sage get started?

Kelly Bennett: When we started Ponderosa Advisors in 2012, we really wanted to focus on different natural resource issues where access to information and general transparency were challenged. Water was a natural one.

At the same time, our CEO [Porter Bennett] was going through the trials and tribulations and expense of trying to understand what was actually happening around agricultural property he owns up in Montana. He was trying to understand how they functioned from an irrigation and a production standpoint. Every time he wanted to understand, for example, how a certain subset of fields was irrigated, and what was the reliability of the water rights that served to irrigate those properties, he had to go out and hire a professional to do the research and interpret all of the data for him.

After he did that a few times, he sat down with us and said: “Listen, you have one year to give me the ability to do this by myself on a Sunday morning while sipping coffee at my kitchen counter.” That’s really how Water Sage was born.

Water Deeply: And what did you learn as you began?

Bennett: One of the things repeatedly said to us was how much time and wheel spinning is traditionally involved with using conventional approaches to first accessing and then aggregating the information you need to understand water rights and doing basic interpretation. What we realized is, this was not only about making the statistics more accessible, but making them more usable in a way that is really built for business.

Water Deeply: What kind of records did you end up working with? Are we talking paper, computerized or both?

Bennett: It was a little bit of both. Most states have computer records, to some degree. There are some states that are mixed. In some states we have ongoing projects to integrate literally hundreds of thousands of paper records into a digital system.

When we collect data, we are connecting with state and local entities that are sort of the stewards of the data, and we’ll connect with them to understand the best and most efficient way for them to have us collect those databases. In some cases, we have to file open records requests. And we’ll get info back that is sometimes photocopied pages. Sometimes we’ll get an Excel spreadsheet in an email. Sometimes we’ll get a DVD. Our job is to make sense of it all, integrate it all and make sure we’re doing that in a way that’s useful to the people who need that information.

Water Deeply: It sounds like this becomes time-consuming.

Bennett: It is, definitely. It takes a few man-years, basically, to develop each one of these states. Once we figure out where the data is and how to get it, and make sense of it, then we have to figure out how to computerize it. We’re also running updates on these data occasionally, in the background, because we want to make sure people have access to the most contemporary data we can get. We set processes in place to automate that.

Water Deeply: Were any government agencies reluctant to give you this information?

Bennett: It really varies. In some places we have really been welcomed with open arms. It’s not easy to publish this kind of data and maintain the software that does it. There are many states that have spent upwards of $10 million each on platforms to offer this information, and then those platforms become obsolete in a year and a half. There are other agencies that are very concerned about a private company using the data that way.

Water Deeply: You’ve managed to integrate records on both surface water and groundwater in your platform. Was that difficult?

A screen grab from the Water Sage system, showing surface water rights and groundwater wells on Sherman Island in California's Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. (Image Courtesy Water Sage)

A screen grab from the Water Sage system, showing surface water rights and groundwater wells on Sherman Island in California’s Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. (Image Courtesy Water Sage)

Bennett: It is very common to have to go out and acquire information from five, six or more different data sets for a specific area to be able to get a comprehensive view. Sometimes you have to integrate not only surface water and groundwater, but some of the legal land-ownership information and some of the different legal concerns that surround the nexus of all those. So if you don’t know about all those different data sets and how to integrate them, it can be an incredibly complicated process and that can be sort of a show-stopper for potential users.

Water Deeply: Can you give me an example of what your California groundwater records reveal?

Bennett: We’ve taken every well measurement from six different databases over the past 10 years and interpreted them to show depth to groundwater. On our system, you can draw a shape or polygon on a map to search within that shape.

For example, in this one area of Yolo County, we can see there are 711 wells, we can see the location of each well, and we can see the deepest is around 1,000 feet. If we want to see threatened areas, we can look where the water table is dropping the fastest by looking at the change in the depth to water over the past 10 years. And we can see within that area of Yolo County one well that shows a 0.1-inch drop per day, or 40 feet in 10 years.

Then you can search land ownership and pesticide use on that parcel, which shows us they are growing almonds. If we want to see what crops they were growing in 2013, we can use pesticide use as a proxy to go back in time and see how many acres were planted in different crops. This detail is available for the entire state.

Water Deeply: For California, you also include pesticide-use information. Why?

Bennett: What it does is provide a snapshot of how land was being used. That matters in trying to understand land value or what kind of crops are being irrigated with what kind of water in a certain area. It’s just away to be able to integrate more information about what’s happening at that nexus of land ownership, water rights and use of that water.

Water Deeply: Were there any unique problems or challenges about adding California to your system?

Bennett: Some of the challenges we ran into were just finding the data. California is really one of the only states that’s really in a serious state of transition in terms of how it administers water. That affects everything from legal systems all the way down to what kind of info is generated and who manages it.

The wonderful thing about the state is the agencies have been incredibly forthcoming with information and data, and with insights in terms of implementation of laws and where things are going from a state information management and water administration standpoint. The state agencies have been really wonderful and communicative.

Water Deeply: What’s next?

Bennett: There’s a whole host of additional data that we’re looking at in terms of land use, water conveyance, contractual data, water quality and environmental info. There’s just a lot of data out there. Now that we have our core offering ready in California, we are starting to dig into that. We have not yet started to integrate satellite imagery, although I think we certainly will.

At the same time, we are also looking at the rest of the Colorado River Basin. Obviously, if you’re looking at water supply in California, to really be able to understand it at a high level you’re going to be looking at the entire Colorado River and the entire landscape-scale data concerns in that river basin. We’ve built data sets for nearly 20 states in total to start integrating them into the system as well.

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