Regulators seek better tracking of farm water use
Most urban dwellers get a water bill each month that’s based on how much water they use. But on some California farms, that’s not the case.
“In many parts of the state, the amount of water farmers use is not measured,” says Susan Sims of the California Water Commission.
Instead, farmers are charged a flat rate for water in some districts. Sims says that makes it difficult for farmers to conserve water. “It’s very hard, even when you want to conserve. I think the first step in saving water is knowing what you’re using.”
Toward that end, the Water Commission votes today on rules that would require water districts to meter the volume of water farmers use — and to charge them accordingly. Sims says many water districts, including some in the San Joaquin Valley, already do this. Others in Northern California don’t.
Water officials hope that having a baseline measurement will set the stage for future conservation measures. “Even minor improvements in conservation for farmers could have huge impact,” says Sims.
The regulations are part of a package of water efficiency measures passed in the Water Conservation Act of 2009. The act also calls on urban water users to cut their use 20% by 2020.
But some environmental groups are concerned that the regulations have been weakened by the Department of Water Resources.
“In our view, DWR has moved away from the chief goal of the legislation and has let a lot of districts propose to measure the water use upstream of farms,” says Doug Obegi, staff attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council. “So then you’re measuring how much water is going to a whole host of customers without letting the individual customers know how much they’re using.”
Sims says those exemptions were added because water districts lack legal access to the farm itself. According to DWR, nearly 80% of California’s “developed” (pumped or diverted) water goes to agriculture. Farmers irrigate 9.6 million acres in the state.
If approved by the commission, the rules will be open for public comment.