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Stories from the valley

A fuller picture of water transfers in this fourth year of drought

By David Guy, President, Northern California Water Association
Tim Johnson, President & CEO, California Rice Commission

While recent reporting on water transfers is technically more accurate, it still leaves a lot of questions unanswered. This same reporting also implies something unseemly about selling water from the Sacramento Valley.

The following is a balanced perspective with a full set of facts for consideration.

Water transfers are a small part of a larger water management portfolio.

The Sacramento Valley and its water suppliers are committed to long-term sustainability, particularly with the region’s precious water resources. Water in the Sacramento Valley serves important multiple uses for cities and rural communities, farms, fish, birds and recreation. Water transfers are a small (albeit important in critical years) part of the water portfolio and serve as a flexible, short-term pressure valve to protect the region’s water resources for long-term sustainability and future generations in the Valley.

Water transfers are less this year than in past droughts

Big numbers like hundreds of thousands of acre–feet and billions of gallons of water are use to sound alarming. They are meant to.

In reality, water transfers from the Sacramento Valley are considerably lower this year than in previous droughts. In the drought in the early 1990’s, nearly a million acre-feet of water was transferred—compared with several hundred thousand this year.  The straightforward reason is that there is far less water available in all regions of the state, including the Sacramento Valley, and there is less need for water in urban areas due to their investments in water supplies.

It also reflects the increased need for water in the north, an area typically less impacted by droughts than other regions of the state. Already agriculture is dealing with cuts of 25 to 100 percent. Some areas were notified they would receive no water for the second year in a row. So, more water is staying in the Sacramento Valley. In fact, some of the transfers widely reported are from one district in the valley to another—so-called neighbor to neighbor transfers.

Farmers are not making a killing selling water at ‘princely’ sums

From a farmer’s perspective, the profit and loss report this year looks pretty dim. More acres will be fallowed this year than last year (2014 rice acres dropped by one-fourth), primarily due to a lack of water supply. Incomes will similarly be impacted.

Strong safeguards are in place in nearly every water district that limit the total amount of water that any one farmer can sell, typically no more than 25 percent.

In consideration for fallowing even more acres (beyond the 25 to 50 percent already idled due to a lack of water), a farmer can generate revenue to offset lost farm sales.

Importantly, farmers do not receive the full amount from the water transfer. Many water districts maintain a portion of the revenue, which has been reinvested in salmon and bird improvement projects and flood protection  that would be difficult to fund otherwise.

Many districts also hold back a portion of the sale revenue to offset fixed operation costs that are passed along to ratepayers on water delivered. With less water being supplied, bills would otherwise go up sharply.

The reasons behind water transfers

While not stated outright, the undertone of many stories is that we should not be selling water to others, but rather keeping it local. This position is both morally and practically difficult to defend.

What person has not helped a neighbor or friend in need? We are a caring and giving community. A trait for which we should rightly be proud.

At the same time, we all recognize that constantly offering help without limit is damaging. No one in the Sacramento Valley believes that we are the solution to the state’s long–term water needs. We’ve passed Proposition 1 for more storage and to better use our current water. These investments, along with others, will provide the sustainable long–term solutions that can make a real difference.

From a practical perspective, earlier this spring water transfers from the Sacramento Valley were not only anticipated, but planned. Had water not been made available, within reasonable limits, it is possible that the water would have been redirected without any benefit to the local areas by state and federal agencies. Water transfers serve as a flexible pressure valve to link supplies and demand. Most would agree a practical approach during these challenging years is preferable.

Urban areas have invested in their water supplies.

The urban areas in Southern California and the Bay Area have made significant, billion dollar investments in water infrastructure over the past several decades that provide more reliable water supplies during dry periods and reduced the demand for water transfers. In both 2014 and 2015, the third and fourth years of the drought, there has been a small amount of water transferred to urban areas to help with their water supplies. There are important lessons learned from these urban areas: invest in offstream storage projects, such as Diamond Valley and Los Vaqueros—these projects have helped get through the dry years.

Water transfers will not dramatically increase groundwater pumping

In most cases, transfer of surface water requires that groundwater not be substituted. The result is that additional acres are left unplanted.

When groundwater is pumped in conjunction with a transfer, it’s important to know that this resource is in far better shape in the Sacramento Valley than elsewhere. With the exception of a few isolated areas under careful review, there are adequate levels of ground water to sustain controlled pumping in severe drought. Further, this region is moving forward to implement the new ground water sustainability regulations adopted last year.

What this means for the Sacramento Valley

The fullness of the facts should calm the panic and ease the discord to frequently found in the discussion of the drought. To be clear, the drought is significant and its impacts are real. The effects on our communities both urban and rural will be significant this year.

At the same time, there is some water available in certain areas and those who make additional sacrifices are able to offset some of their losses. While we can’t make it rain, we can be neighborly and civil until it does and we have more reservoirs and other tools in place to lessen the hurt of the next drought.

The long-term solution is new infrastructure.

Water transfers are a short-term pressure valve—the long-term solution for water supplies is additional smart infrastructure, such as Sites reservoir, that can serve as an offstream regulating reservoir to help assure reliable water supplies during dry years.