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Commentary: Failure to prepare deepens the pain from dry years

Issue Date: April 14, 2021
By Danny Merkley and Chris Scheuring
During this dry year, farmers will face difficult decisions about their crops, as well as frustration about why the state hasn’t done more to prepare for dry times.

It's that time of year, when we find out it's that kind of year.

We appear at the doorstep of a "critically dry year," and most reservoir levels are significantly below average. Those conditions bring painfully to mind the awful drought years of 2014 and 2015, and threaten water supplies for California farms and cities, and for the protected fish species that must also get by in these lean years.

For direct diverters, the State Water Resources Control Board recently sent letters to 40,000 water right holders of record, asking them to start planning for potential water supply shortages later this year, and identifying actions water users can take to increase drought resilience.

Since 1966, California law has required those who divert surface water or pump groundwater from a known subterranean stream to file a Statement of Water Diversion and Use with the water board. A 2009 law removed some exemptions from this requirement and granted the board authority to assess potentially large fines on diverters who fail to submit the required reports—something it has been doing, increasingly. In 2015, another law added significant new measurement and reporting requirements.

Annual reports for permits, licenses, registrations and stock pond certificates must be filed by April 1 each year, and annual use reports for "statements" are required to be filed prior to July 1.

As challenging and costly as it is to monitor and report diversions and use, the water board relies in part on accurate and timely data from water right holders to protect legal users and administer rights to California's water. Without this information, it would be as if the state were trying to manage a bank account with multiple people writing checks without a check register. That could cause the board to curtail water diversions earlier than might be necessary, for example, to avoid "overdrafting the account" or allowing one person to cash a check written for someone else.

By accurately reporting diversion and use data on time, water users fulfill their legal reporting obligation, avoid fines or loss of their water rights, and provide important information for the protection of all legal water users.

Such statement-based accounting is just one tool, with other new measuring and modeling tools and capabilities improving every year. From a legal and management standpoint, however, as a water user's declaration of his or her own actual use, such reporting carries unique weight.

Aside from direct diverters under any right —riparian, pre-1914 or post-1914—for our members who buy water from water districts, the news this year has been rough as well.

Current allocation numbers from both the State Water Project and the federal Central Valley Project, for example, are a fraction of average annual deliveries. Expected deliveries from local projects may vary, though most may not be in much better shape. Depending on where you are, the headgate or turnout may not be an option until later in the season, or at a reduced allocation—or both.

If you're lucky, you might be able to default to groundwater instead: a critical backstop supply that helps get us through dry years when surface water is less available. But that too may be a diminishing option in future years, with the advent of sustainable groundwater management and the creation of local groundwater sustainability plans under the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act of 2014. In other words, the act of drawing on the groundwater "savings account" will mean either filling it back up in subsequent years, or having potentially less to draw on.

Farmers certainly understand the arrival of dry years—but they don't understand the ongoing failure to prepare for those dry years. You've heard from us before about the need to "carry more sail" in wet years to make it through the dry ones, through development of additional storage, either above or below ground. We must take better advantage of wet years, but also of wet episodes in otherwise dry years.

Processes such as allocating money from the 2014 Proposition 1 water bond need to bring results through the construction of actual facilities. We need to restore the reliability of project deliveries through the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. Beyond this, the state must accelerate authorization and permitting for projects and management actions identified in local groundwater sustainability plans and "managed aquifer recharge" using floodwaters to replenish aquifers.

In this dry year, we again face difficult conditions and decisions—and the failure to have effectively prepared makes years like this sting all the more.

(Danny Merkley is director of water resources and Chris Scheuring is senior counsel for the California Farm Bureau.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.




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