How California Accounts for its Water Resources

September 16, 2016


Media reports that California doesn’t understand how much water it has are not true, says farmer Cannon Michael. While there are gaps in understanding, detailed information about reservoirs and river flows can be easily accessed online.

A recent report authored by the Public Policy Institute of California called “Accounting for California’s Water” about gaps in California’s water accounting has led to a lot of media coverage – some of it troubling.

Grist reported, “Shockingly, California isn’t tracking much of its water,” and Water Deeply wrote, “One of the shocking truths to emerge from California’s continuing drought is this: the state has no idea how much water it has.”

There may be a lack of total understanding regarding the system and groundwater usage isn’t currently reported, but the idea that the state of California has “no idea” how much water it has is completely untrue.

Water is a crucial resource for us all, and as a farmer I spend a lot of time focused on the available water in the state and on my farm. There is a great deal of information on the amount of water we have in the state, where it goes, to whom, when and why. Measurements in great detail are easily available to all, and there are some excellent hydrologists as well as operators of our state, federal and local water projects.

For instance, there is information on how much water falls in rain and snow, how much flows in and out of reservoirs, how much flow is in each river and how much flows in and out of the Delta.

You can find reservoir levels” posted online and see up-to-date readings on every major reservoir in the state. Inflow and outflow to each reservoir is tracked every single day. You can easily find the Daily Operations Summary put out by the Department of Water Resources that provides information about the inflows into the Delta from the Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers as well as reservoir levels and releases and what is being exported by the federal and state water projects. This is a daily report that is easily accessible, providing a lot of detailed information regarding our water system.

Here on the farm, we know exactly how much water we use every single day. The money to run the irrigation district that provides our water comes from them billing us for our usage – how can they bill us if they don’t measure it? Each irrigation event is measured and monitored. The entire district has a SCADA (supervisory control and data acquisition) system that records flows and water quality throughout the district. Every well in the district is metered and monitored.

Even though we farm in a senior rights area, the majority of our fields use drip irrigation so we can grow better crops and reduce our water bills. Every drip station has a sensitive flow meter so we can understand exactly how much water we have used on a daily basis; we focus on only giving the crop the exact amount it needs. Water is an input and costs us money, so we have every incentive to reduce our usage and apply only what is needed.

I can concede that getting a better understanding of groundwater extraction has been a challenge, but I do know that most districts are measuring how much is being used. With the addition of the new Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, this issue will be resolved within the next decade and there will be much more data available.

So is the California water accounting system perfect? No – but the premise that we have “no idea” how much water we have is completely false. California needs intelligent water reporting that will foster better understanding and dialogue.