California needs to stop letting farm-water suppliers ignore the law

The Byron-Bethany Irrigation District, which operates this canal, is among those that haven’t complied with a law requiring an accounting of water delivered to farmers.
The Byron-Bethany Irrigation District, which operates this canal, is among those that haven’t complied with a law requiring an accounting of water delivered to farmers. The Associated Press

Agriculture accounts for roughly 80 percent of the water used by people in California. “Roughly” because, unlike urban water districts, farm-water suppliers reveal little about how much of the state’s most precious resource goes into irrigation ditches and fields.

That lack of basic public information from a behemoth water consumer was one reason the state passed a 2007 law requiring irrigation districts to start coughing up a modicum of so-called “farm-gate” data. The state form, to be filed with the Department of Water Resources, asks a bare handful of essential questions, on a single page.

How big is your district? How much of your acreage is irrigated? How many of your customers are farms? How much surface water did you deliver to them last year?

That’s about it, and most irrigation districts know the answers or could find out in minutes; otherwise, they and the farmers who typically dominate their boards would be out of business.

Yet, according to an aggravating report last Sunday by The Bee’s Ryan Sabalow and Phillip Reese, only about one irrigation district in five has bothered to comply even sporadically, leaving the rest of us in the dark about where and how a massive share of California water is spent.

Even during the worst years of the recent drought, Sabalow and Reese found, only 24 of the state’s 123 largest water suppliers consistently answered the questions. Excuses were all over the map, but the bottom line was that later laws led some districts to imagine the 2007 reports were no longer a requirement. That, and the 2007 law turns out to have no teeth.

No provision allows the state to issue fines for failing to report, either in the 2007 law or in a set of longer-term reporting requirements for larger irrigation districts that came along two years later. The only serious leverage the state has is a 2009 rule that makes some state grants and loans contingent on filing five-year water management plans.

As a result, as Sabalow and Reese put it, the data on farm-water use “is so full of holes that it’s effectively useless.”

No one likes paperwork, and the farmers who typically sit on the district boards claim more reporting just makes for more expensive water. But five minutes of work won’t break the bank, and intentional or not, their lack of transparency has real world impacts.

Cities know how much water leaky pipes and distribution systems are losing because urban water districts have to report usage. Irrigation districts generate no comparable public data, though it would come in handy, given the number that rely on unlined canals and aging infrastructure.

Urban districts know to the drop which conservation methods work best, from low-flush toilets to incentives for drought-tolerant landscapes. Surely some irrigation districts privately do sophisticated tracking, but we’re talking about a sector that uses four times the water used by towns, suburbs and cities. Wouldn’t it be nice for the rest of us to know which areas are putting it to the most efficient use?

The state passed a water bond in 2014. Better farm data would help authorities decide among water storage projects competing for billions of state dollars.

And then there’s the question of fundamental fairness: When cities are scrutinizing and maximizing every gallon, is it fair to keep giving farmers a pass?

Two pending bills would address the paucity of farm-water data. Assembly Bill 1667 and a trailer bill pushed by Gov. Jerry Brown would, among other things, require the Department of Water Resources to standardize and post irrigation districts’ five-year water management plans online.

That would make it easier for the public to track farm-water deliveries and drought preparations over the long term, which is progress; right now, that information has to be specially requested through DWR.

But neither bill deals with the shorter-term need to see, year to year, where ag water is going. And, online or elsewhere, the current requirements are still the law, and need to be enforced.

State lawmakers should pass AB 1667, but, while they’re negotiating the budget, they should add some civil penalties or other accountability to ensure that the current 2007 law is complied with, maybe by making state funding for conservation efforts contingent on up-to-date reporting.

Spotty record-keeping may not seem a pressing problem, but if this era has taught us anything, it is that facts matter. Information is power, in this case power over California’s most sought-after resource.

A one-page form is hardly a burden, especially when the law requires it. And 80 percent of the water for human consumption in a state this dry is a lot to ask without a splash of transparency, too.