A Water Meter Mandate for California Farms

Regulators seek better tracking of farm water use

Flooded rice fields in the Sacramento Valley. (Photo: Craig Miller)

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.

  • http://www.farmwater.org Mike Wade

    NRDC’s Doug Obegi continues to mislead the public about agricultural water measurement practices either because he doesn’t understand them or because he is intentionally ignoring the facts. Agricultural water suppliers that measure water upstream from the on-farm delivery points have for years been able to apportion water deliveries to individual farms and charge them volumetrically based on the amount they use. NRDC staff have previously been invited to the field to observe this first-hand but have yet to accept our offer. Is the new measurement regulation simply the status quo for farmers? Absolutely not. It will be a big challenge for some areas to comply and it won’t be cheap. But farmers, as they have in other areas in the past, will step up and do what is necessary to provide Californians with accurate data on water use.

    DWR’s Sue Simms mistakenly states that agriculture uses 80 percent of California’s “developed” water supply. The recently published California Water Plan by DWR shows developed water allocated at 11 percent for urban uses, 41 for agriculture and 48 percent for dedicated environmental purposes.

    Mike Wade
    California Farm Water Coalition

  • Jerry Cadagan

    Mike is simply wrong when he says that the Calif. Water Plan shows an “11-41-48″ ratio of DEVELOPED water allocation. For a simple explanation see —–

    http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/blogs/gleick/detail?entry_id=46314

    It’s the denominator. Mike’s numbers are right if you use every drop that falls as the denominator. But much that falls is not “developed” for a variety of legitimate reasons. That is not to say that the water that is not developed is “wasted” as some have said. In fact last August the State Water Resources Control Board issued a report suggesting that more fresh water needs to flow through the Delta for a variety of environmental reasons.

    • http://www.farmwater.org Mike Wade

      It’s very kind of Jerry Cadagan to attribute water use and employment statistics to me when , in fact, the credit should go to the sources I quote: the California Department of Water Resources and Employment Development Department.

      Mike Wade
      California Farm Water Coalition

  • Tim Quinn

    48% of allocated water goes to environmental uses. Really? Does water come from the environment? The rivers, lakes, snowpack, etc. Mike Water is saying that the environment uses water. How does the environment use water? Mike, hun, your Farm Water Coalition wants to suck all the rivers dry and leave no water for the fish. Please get a brain.

    • Craig Miller

      This is a good discussion–let’s just be careful about the personal attacks.

  • Craig Miller

    If it’s helpful, the section of the DWR website on “Agricultural Water Use” states that:

    “California is the sole producer of 12 different commodities including almonds, artichokes, dates, figs, raisins, kiwifruit, olives, persimmons, pistachios, prunes and walnuts.

    Most of this production would not be possible without irrigation. In average year [sic] California agriculture irrigates 9.6 million acres using roughly 34 million acre-feet of water of the 43 million acre-feet diverted from surface waters or pumped from groundwater.”

    This ratio works out to 79.06%.

    http://www.water.ca.gov/wateruseefficiency/agricultural/

  • Antony Tomas

    How much ag water returns to the environment through evaporation or trickling back into the ground or returning to the rivers? This discussion has to be so much more complex than it looks.

    With all the levies and dams and pumps and managed wetlands, isn’t it all “developed water” at this point anyway?

  • Larry F

    We should apply Mike Wade’s idea of measurement to electricity. Just measure the amount of electricity generated and then guesstimate the amount each of us use. Great deal for the all-electric house with lights burning 24/7 and the temperature set at 68 during the summer and 74 during the winter. Not such a good deal for the careful consumer of electricity who is now subsidizing the big user. Mike Wade either doesn’t understand measurement and billing by the amount used or he is really a politician who uses words to turn day into night.

  • TB Skinner

    OR Larry F, you don’t understand that the water users are already paying the full tab. Water Districts are nothing more than the farmers inside them. Much like when you eat out at a restaurant with friends, the tab must be paid. The farmers, collectively as a district pay the full bill. How they agree to split the tab among them is what the state has decided to mandate.

    • Larry F

      I would not enjoy having dinner with you. You would probably have the most expensive items on the menu and six drinks and I would have a salad. Then you would want to split the bill and I would pay for most of your meal. That approach only encourages the big spender to spend more since they are subsidized by the careful spender. Do you understand how paying for what YOU use motivates you to be more careful in what you use?

  • TB Skinner

    Do you understand that farmers try to apply precisely the right amount of water they need or it damages their crops? Overuse does not benefit ANY farmer. Meeting the crops water needs as closely as possible is the best way to ensure that disease issues like fungus and rot don’t wither the crop.

    Few people outside of agriculture understand what they are looking at when they see water use in agriculture. Particularly in Sacramento.

    But we can agree on at least one thing. I too value having a fresh, cheap food supply grown here in California.

    Pass the salad dressing.

    • Larry F

      Applying the precise amount of water a crop needs is a rather complex topic. Did a farmer pick the best crop for the soil type or is there excess deep percolation? Did the farmer install and maintain the best irrigation system for the crop and soil type or is the water so cheap that the cost of the best irrigation system is not justified? Did the cost of the labor to shut off the flow of water at 2:00 AM mean that it was cheaper to let the water flow until 6:00 AM? Did the Federal crop subsidies pay the farmer enough extra that the farmer planted more of a crop that could be sold? Or the subsidy made it worth growing a crop that wouldn’t pay for itself? Or the farmer’s exemption from the Clean Water Act means that contaminated land can be farmed and the US taxpayer will have to pay the cleanup cost? Even you have to admit that every farmer does not apply the precise amount of water a crop needs.

  • TB Skinner

    Do you suggest every homeowner use a satellite based moisture monitoring system with remotely operated control systems to ensure that the irrigation of landscaping in their homes is optimal?

    Should the state mandate what landscape plants are permissible in certain soil types and water availability conditions, or whether homeowners must replace their landscaping annually to best meet the water conditions for the year?

    Should the state eliminate urban development in areas with distant, unsustainable water supplies entirely, or should society have to continue to bear the burden for their distance from their supply?

    If you are predisposed to believe only the portions of the facts you understand, there is little that can be done through this medium to have meaningful conversation. Please take some time to read up on water use in agriculture the the UC Cooperative services. There is a Davis office if you need more information.