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Executive Summary for January 20th

For the first time in history, California water-rights holders will be required to measure and report their actual water consumption, based on new regulations approved Tuesday. Also, results from one water agency indicate that public “drought-shaming” helps reduce water consumption.

Published on Jan. 20, 2016 Read time Approx. 4 minutes

State Orders Measurement of All Water Diversions

It’s hard to believe that in 21st-century California there are some 12,000 individuals and companies with the right to divert water from the state’s streams – and who have had almost no obligation to report how much they divert.

That will be changing after a historic decision taken Tuesday by the State Water Resources Control Board. The board passed new rules that require those diverters to install measuring devices that will monitor exactly how much they divert. They will have to report those measurements annually.

Previously, diverters merely had to fill out a form stating how much they diverted. Usually, these were mere estimates. In many cases, the diverter would perfunctorily report the maximum diversion amount allowed by their permit, even if they diverted more or less. They often didn’t know for certain themselves how much they diverted, so they reported the permitted amount as a means of securing their right to that amount (a “use-it-or-lose-it” strategy).

“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,” water board chair Felicia Marcus said in a statement, according to the Desert Sun newspaper.

Many water diverters complained about the decision, of course, because it will cost them money. They will have to buy water meters to install on their diversion lines, set up procedures to check the meters on a regular basis, and begin reporting that data annually to the state (in the past, many diverters had to report their diversion estimates only every three years).

“We still believe you may have overestimated the feasibility of compliance here,” said Danny Merkley, director of water resources for the California Farm Bureau Federation, according to the San Francisco Chronicle. “It’s going to be very difficult for the thousands and thousands of diverters.”

Eventually, the new rules will allow state officials to gain a full understanding of how much the state’s water-rights holders are really diverting. Amazingly, their estimates for decades have been largely based on speculation and educated guesses. That’s a difficult way to manage water in the world’s eighth-largest economy.

The emergency regulations put in place measures required by Senate Bill 88, which was passed last year. It applies to water-rights holders who divert more than 10 acre-feet per year, which is about what 10 average households use in a year.

The state board decided to phase in the requirements for measuring devices to be installed, and the timetable depends on the amount of water used. Big users that divert 1,000 acre-feet or more per year will be required to have a measuring device that can record the amounts of water flowing on an hourly basis by January 1, 2017. For others that divert less, the requirements will kick in on July 1, 2017, or January 1, 2018, and measurements will need to be recorded on a daily or weekly basis, depending on the amount.

The state will start requiring all diverters to report their monthly water use once a year. Violators could be fined up to $500 per day.

The regulation eliminates a loophole that allows water-rights holders to cite economic hardship and forgo metering, something 70 percent have historically done, according to state estimates.

Researchers at the Public Policy Institute of California and the U.C. Davis Center for Watershed Sciences pointed out in a memo to the board that Colorado, some states in Australia and parts of Spain all collect real-time measurements from reservoirs, stream gages, diversion points and monitoring wells “in one centralized accounting platform.”

But state water board officials dropped a proposal to compel the biggest users to post their water withdrawals in real time on a public website.

The regulations still prompted numerous complaints from water diverters, many of whom have enjoyed nearly unlimited use of the state’s waters, at no charge, for more than a century.

“I don’t have an extra $10,000 to spend on something,” said Paul Marchini, 70, whose family has been farming wine grapes, alfalfa and wheat on Union Island in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta since the 1940s. “I have riparian rights. I should be able to get as much water as I need, to do what I need to do.”

Does Drought-Shaming Work?

Apparently it does work, based on some early results from the East Bay Municipal Utilities District.

The district is the state’s only major water agency that set a household limit on water consumption, which triggered a state disclosure law requiring it to reveal violators’ names. Without this trigger, water agencies are prevented by another provision of state law from naming their ratepayers.

Since then, EBMUD has been releasing a monthly list of its customers who waste water, resulting in a monthly media frenzy to publish those names, some of which have been professional athletes and business leaders, such as baseball player Buster Posey and former Safeway CEO Steven Burd.

The Contra Costa Times reports that the number of EBMUD customers hit with penalties for using more than 1,000 gallons a day dropped to 709 for a five-week billing period from November 20 to December 25. That compares with 1,098 violators between September 26 and October 9.

“There were fewer violators over a longer period of time,” EBMUD spokeswoman Abby Figueroa said. “And the biggest water users are not using as much.”

She said district officials suspect that excess-use penalties and social pressure both contributed to the drop.

Of the 709 customers on the newest list, 422 were repeat violators, but they cut their use by an average of 28 percent from their previous bill. That exceeds the district’s overall conservation of 22 percent during the period, indicating that those who were shamed made more effort.

Top image: Thousands of California water-rights holders, for the first time in state history, will soon be required to install simple water meters like this one to measure the water they divert from California’s rivers and streams. (State Water Resources Control Board)

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