Pacific Institute Insights

Many Agricultural Water Districts Fail to Submit Required Water Management Plans: Laggards Can Learn from Leaders

By Dr. Juliet Christian-Smith, Senior Research Associate

September 3, 2013 

A few years ago, the California Legislature passed the Water Conservation Act of 2009, which among other things, required large agricultural water providers to begin preparing agricultural water management plans (as urban water providers have done for over a decade). These plans are a key component to encouraging better water planning, management, and efficient use. They also help water managers and consumers understand where the state’s precious water resources are going and efforts to improve water-use productivity.

At the end of 2012, the first round of agricultural water management plans were due. Yet, a new study, from the Pacific Institute and Natural Resources Defense Council, finds that only 24 out of 79 agricultural water district in California submitted agricultural water management plans, leaving 55 districts out of compliance. This represents a 30% compliance rate.

Fortunately, the report also identifies and describes the work of some good actors — setting the standard for other water districts to follow. The study, Implementation of the Agricultural Water Management Planning Act: A Review of Agricultural Water Management Plans, highlights exemplary agricultural water management plans and activities, including:

  • Turlock Irrigation District in Stanislaus County is utilizing approximately 5,200 acre feet of recycled water every year, freeing up traditional water resources for other beneficial uses. Turlock receives their recycled water from the City of Turlock, the City of Modesto and Hilman Cheese Factory.
  • Reclamation District 108 in Colusa County is phasing in new water measurement devices to allow them to accurately measure the amount of water they deliver to  heir customers, as required by the Water Conservation Act. Surprisingly, many districts do not measure the amount of water they deliver to their customers. By knowing precisely how much water they are delivering, RD 108 will be able to provide their customers with enhanced feedback about how efficiency could be improved.
  • Alta Irrigation District in Tulare County has been charging their customers based on the amount of water they receive for over a decade. Many other districts currently charge either by the acre or by the number of times a grower irrigates during a growing season, even though the Water Conservation Act requires them to begin charging at least in part by volume. By pricing water volumetrically, Alta is providing its customers an incentive to become more efficient.

And while the only mechanism to enforce the planning requirement is the denial of state funds to non-compliant districts, the California Department of Water Resources recently recommended awarding substantial state funds to agricultural water suppliers that are not in compliance with the Water Conservation Act of 2009.

The study concludes with a series of recommendations to improve compliance in the future, including: more timely guidance and financial assistance from the Department of Water Resources, regional peer-to-peer workshops to help districts learn from one another, an online clearinghouse of submitted plans to ensure transparency, and an annual conference on agricultural water management planning best practices. Finally, the Department of Water Resources should hold non-compliant districts accountable by not awarding public funds until they come into compliance.

Pacific Institute Insights is the staff blog of the Pacific Institute, one of the world’s leading nonprofit research groups on sustainable and equitable management of natural resources. For more about what we do, click here. The views and opinions expressed in these blogs are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect an official policy or position of the Pacific Institute.

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