Water & Drought

Most California farm-water suppliers are breaking this law. Why doesn’t the state act?

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During California’s epic five-year drought, most of the state’s irrigation districts didn’t comply with a 2007 law that requires them to account for how much water they’re delivering directly to farmers, a Bee investigation has found.

State regulators are largely powerless to stop them, but they don’t seem too bothered by it. They say they’d rather switch to a different form of reporting.

Farm-advocacy groups say irrigation districts have been bombarded with a confusing slew of state and federal laws and regulations that often have overlapping reporting requirements, so it’s no wonder their compliance rates are low.

“I’m not surprised there’s confusion in this among districts on what their requirements are because it’s been a moving target going back to ’07,” said Mike Wade, executive director of the California Farm Water Coalition. “There have been so many changes and so many things being asked of them.”

A decade ago, California lawmakers passed Assembly Bill 1404 with the goal of keeping better track of farm-water use in a state where some 80 percent of the water used by people goes to agriculture. The law called for collecting “farm-gate” data to allow the state to monitor surface water delivered to farmers’ irrigation ditches. The idea was the reports could help regulators and the public better understand how much water is being used and where it’s going.

The law is explicit: Any water agency must file the reports with the Department of Water Resources if it supplies at least 2,000 acre-feet of surface water to farms or if the district serves 2,000 or more irrigated acres.

Ten years later, the state’s data is so full of holes that it’s effectively useless.

Some districts say they don’t have to follow the law, so they ignore it. Some say they had no idea they even had to comply. No state agency keeps a tally of how many districts fall under the law’s requirements. Because water districts self-report, the only way to know they’re required to file with the state is when they choose to submit records. The law doesn’t allow the state to issue fines for noncompliance.

The Sacramento Bee analyzed the filings made from 2012 through 2015 by 123 of the largest irrigation districts, the ones reporting use of more than 10,000 acre-feet of water.

During the heart of California’s drought, just 24 of the 123 water suppliers reported each of the four years, and several of those appear to have turned in reports with incomplete data.

Most districts reported just once or twice – or not at all.

The low compliance rates frustrate environmentalists. They say the data is among the few publicly available sources of information that could be used to track California’s largest water users with any sort of precision.

“It’s important for the public to know how the state’s water resources are being used,” said Laura West of the Natural Resources Defense Council. “The fact there’s no incentive to turn (the reports) in or no penalty for not turning them in, it seems like it should be fixed.”

Responses varied when The Bee asked some of the districts that didn’t file farm-gate reports at various times during the drought to explain why they chose not to.

Imperial Irrigation District in Southern California boasts on its website that its 3,000 miles of canals and drains make it the largest irrigation district in the nation. The agency filed a report in the 2012 fiscal year saying it supplied 2.6 million acre-feet of water – more than twice the size of a full Folsom Lake.

But the district didn’t file any reports during the drought years that followed. Spokeswoman Marion Champion said that after filing the first report, the district had an “internal discussion” and determined it was exempt from the requirements.

Marty Berbach, a senior environmental scientist at DWR who oversees the farm-gate reports, said he’s “not aware” of the exemption Champion cited.

Byron-Bethany Irrigation District in the southern Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta supplies water to nearly 30,000 acres of cropland, according to its website. Yet the agency didn’t report any farm-gate data during the drought.

In a written statement, spokesman Nick Janes said the agency has “aggressively worked” over the years to improve its agricultural water accounting and reduce its water use. He said the agency regularly submits water-use data to the state and will submit data from “farm-gate deliveries in the future.”

Berbach said that a few years ago he sent a mass mailing reminding agencies of the law.

Many of them responded by saying, “ ‘Oh, my gosh, I completely forgot about this,’ ” Berbach said. At least one had their lawyer call Berbach and threaten to sue.

“I said, ‘No, no, no, look at the water code,’ ” Berbach said. “There was this long pause. (The lawyer said,) ‘OK, I’ll go look at the water code.’ There is a lack of information and understanding.”

DWR does require agencies to complete the farm-gate reports when they apply for grants or loans. But Berbach acknowledges that during the drought, the state hasn’t made much of an effort to get irrigation districts to otherwise comply.

The reporting requirements have “fallen down on our priority list,” he said.

Instead, Berbach said, his agency has focused on what he describes as more comprehensive water-reporting requirements championed by Gov. Jerry Brown.

During the drought, Brown issued an executive order that temporarily required any irrigation provider serving an area larger than 10,000 irrigated acres to complete a comprehensive agricultural water management plan. Districts larger than 25,000 acres already were required to have those plans. The management plans include what are called “water budgets” that take into account such factors as groundwater use and recharge, precipitation and surface water.

Berbach said there is legislation pending that would make the governor’s requirements permanent.

“I think it’s much better,” Berbach said.

Ben Chou at the Natural Resources Defense Council agrees that the more holistic tracking envisioned in a water budget is a noble goal, but many water agencies are years away from being able to accurately track things like groundwater recharge. He said there’s still an urgent need to have fully completed farm-gate data to better know how agriculture is divvying up its massive share of the state’s surface water.

Chou and West support Assembly Bill 1667 pending in the California Legislature because it includes provisions requiring the farm-gate reports to be posted online. Currently, they’re only available after being requested through DWR. Environmentalists hope the extra public scrutiny will prompt more irrigation districts to comply.

AB 1667 is separate from the governor’s legislation, a trailer bill attached to the budget.

Wade of the Farm Water Coalition points to the two pending laws with different requirements as further proof of how confusing all this can be to irrigation districts.

“They’re trying to catch up with the past, and the future is already running them over with a new set of requirements,” Wade said. “It would be nice if the clock would stop at some point, and we can all agree on what the state needs to have.”

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Ryan Sabalow: 916-321-1264, @ryansabalow

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