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Perpetuating the Illusion of Water Abundance

Kate Poole

Posted November 18, 2012

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CVPIA Salmon Index Blog Series

  • Perpetuating the Illusion of Water Abundance

My colleague Ed Osann blogged recently about how new tiered water rates approved by the California Public Utilities Commission will allow water users to save money and make better use of our scarce water resources.  The concept is simple:  charge lower rates to those who use average amounts of water, and charge higher rates for higher than average levels of water use, with the highest rate reserved for levels of water use far in excess of the summertime average.  As Ed explained:  “This benefits customers who want to be smarter about their water use, and encourages heavy users to find ways to make their water consumption more efficient.”  The resulting savings can also help us adapt to our changing water landscape in California.

Sounds sensible, right?  And so necessary in light of the unmistakable signs that California is drawing down its river systems and groundwater supplies at an unsustainable rate.  Makes you wonder why it hasn’t been implemented on a larger scale.

In fact, Congress hit upon the same idea 20 years ago, when it passed the Central Valley Project Improvement Act.  The Act required the Bureau of Reclamation to implement tiered rates on water deliveries from the largest water project in the United States:  the Central Valley Project (CVP).  In conjunction with other sensible measures, like improving the efficiency of CVP water use and conforming over-allocated CVP contract amounts to environmental limits, the Act gave the Bureau the tools and the authority to modernize century-old reclamation practices that were designed to encourage pioneers to settle the wild west, and bring CVP operations in line with 21st century realities and priorities.

But the Bureau has largely ignored or ineffectively implemented these requirements in the wake of the CVPIA.  That means that the vast majority of the 270 CVP contracts administered by the Bureau for delivery of 9.5 million acre-feet of water annually continue to overpromise the delivery of cheap water at prices that encourage wasteful use.  9.5 million acre-feet is a huge block of water – more than fourteen times the amount of water used by the entire City of Los Angeles in a year. Yet, the City of LA pays close to $1,000/acre-foot to buy water imported from the San Francisco Bay-Delta from the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, while most CVP contractors pay less than $100/acre-foot for water from the Delta, and some even complain about having to pay $9/acre-foot.

The Bureau’s failure to effectively wield the pricing, efficiency and contract reform tools of the CVPIA has been a major factor in bringing California to the place where we are today:  where environmental limits in our river systems have been exceeded; salmon and other fisheries sustained by the Delta have crashed; and courts have had to step in to impose last-ditch limits on excessive water pumping. And still, CVP contractors demand the delivery of more subsidized water.  Wouldn’t everyone in this system be better off if CVP contracts reflected realistic water delivery levels – allowing farmers to rely on their contracted water supply and plan ahead – and water prices increased as the amount of water used increases?  Farmers could still choose to plant water-intensive crops if it made economic sense, but they would pay more for that water use than others who elected to grow more efficiently.    

The journalist Cynthia Barnett recently wrote a compelling story about the Bureau’s failure to face the changing realities of water in the west at Hoover Dam, even as Lake Mead dries up.  She noted that the Bureau’s tour of the Dam presented “the illusion of water abundance at its most obscene.”  Sadly, the same observation applies to the Bureau’s failure to implement the water saving and pricing tools of the CVPIA.  Effective use of these tools can help us rationally adapt to the real and growing water limits that we face, instead of lurching from crisis to crisis.  It’s time for the Bureau to dust off their authority and get to work. 

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Mike WadeNov 19 2012 02:23 PM

There was no over-allocation of water when CVPIA was adopted. Water delivered to both farmers and municipalities from the CVP was used to grow crops and provide a water supply to people and businesses. CVPIA took a portion of that water and redirected it to environmental purposes. The characterization of this water as “over-allocated CVP contract amounts” is simply wrong.

The author also references “9.5 million acre-feet” of delivered water as if it is an every year event. This is a false premise. From 2007 through 2011, only 3.3 million acre-feet were delivered to farmers with another 373,000 acre-feet going to municipal use. The priority use of this water directs that it be delivered first to municipalities, wildlife refuges and environmental purposes before farmers receive their share.

Comparing the cost of water between the City of Los Angeles and farmers in the San Joaquin Valley is a feeble attempt to portray farmers as not paying their share. Farmers pay the cost of delivering their water and the full operation and maintenance costs to keep the CVP in operation. Southern California water users also pay their share of delivery but they encounter additional costs, such the need to pump the water over the Tehachapi Mountains, treat the water for human consumption and maintain a pressurized system that keeps water flowing when their residents turn on their faucets. It is important to note that water flowing to Southern California is from the California State Water Project and not the federal Central Valley Project.

It is unfortunate that articles such as this blog do not present all of the facts.

Mike Wade
California Farm Water Coalition

Kate PooleNov 19 2012 05:46 PM

I'm afraid you have your facts wrong, Mike. This table posted by the Bureau of Reclamation shows actual water deliveries from the CVP from 2007 to 2011: As you can see, agriculture received far more than your asserted 3.3 million acre-feet in each of those years. For example, in water year 2011, the CVP delivered just under 5.5 million acre-feet to agricultural users -- and those are just contract deliveries. Many additional thousands of acre-feet are delivered to these users as non-contract deliveries, such as 215 water that the Bureau essentially gives away for free, carryover water, as well as tranfers and exchanges.


Mark BorbaNov 19 2012 06:13 PM

Kate--Your assertions depicting farmers as water-wasters, abusing the "cheap CVP water" available to them is uninformed.

First, water costs delivered to my fields have increased since 1974 from $7.50 per acre foot on nearly 3 acre feet per acre (as called for in our original CVP contract), to this year's $132 per acre foot. Quantities delivered are no more than 2.25 acre feet per acre @ 100% of contract in my District. Unfortunately, the contracted supplies following CVPIA (1991) and subsequent additional environmental rules...has resulted in only 40% of contacted supply being delivered this season. Last year (2011) we received 80% of contract; in 2010 we received 10% of contact. Thus, reliability has become a major planning/financing issue.

The relevance for this discussion is to point out that in my District growers are not wasting water, as costs have sky-rocketed, and availability has plunged. Every acre of every crop I produce (almonds, tomatoes, onions, garlic, lettuce, melons and cotton) is irrigated by drip irrigation, the most efficient (and costly) of application technologies. WHY? Because not doing so would result in land laying fallow; no production; no employment; no tax generation for California and our nation; no economic activity depended upon by our Federal Goverment...and likely failure of my family-farm operation in the Central Valley.

I suggest you visit my farm, Kate. You have an open invitation. I'm happy to provide a tour and discuss these and other issues with you. Just let me know when.

Importantly, we should be working together to better manage and use the water resource of our State...and foster a cooperative effort to factually assess and improve upon current approaches. Our children and grandchildren are depending on us. It is unfair to them to perpetuate old, tired, and inaccurate yarns about farmers wasting highly subsidized water on surplus crops. It just ain't so, Kate. Come visit...and afterwards...I bet you'll agree.

Kate PooleNov 20 2012 12:49 PM

Mark -- I'd be delighted to take you up on your offer of a visit. I did not mean to paint all farmers with the same brush, and I agree that many of those who have had to pay higher prices for water have the incentive to invest in efficient irrigation technology. It sounds like you are among those users. But there are many agricultural water users throughout the system who don't face those same incentives because their water is so cheap, and they don't have a reason to make the water-saving investments you have. If those folks used water more efficiently, there'd be more to go around for everyone. I also understand your frustration at receiving widely varying percentages of your contract amount -- that's why we think everyone would be better off if contract amounts reflected more realistic delivery amounts so that there's a reliable basis for annual planning and financing decisions.

Thanks for your thoughts and your offer,

Mike WadeNov 20 2012 06:04 PM

Kate...You first use “9.5 maf of water annually continue to overpromise the delivery of cheap water at prices that encourage wasteful use” without any explanation, leaving the reader to interpret it to mean that is the amount of water delivered. Then in your response to my earlier comment you cite the 2011 CVP deliver at 5.5 maf. It would have been more informative if you would have qualified that 9.5 maf. The only time CVP will deliver that amount is if we experience a flood and see Noah’s ark floating by.

Your review of delivered water from Reclamation still needs some explanation ( More than a million acre-feet of non-ag water is included in the 2011 number that you mentioned. Taking this water out of the total certainly leaves much less that what you characterize as “just under 5.5 million acre-feet.” This chart includes non-ag water that is found in each of the categories.

Numbers can play tricks on individuals who may not be fully versed in the topic, especially when it comes to water. That is why it is so important to include all of the facts.

Mike Wade
California Farm Water Coalition

Burt WilsonNov 26 2012 04:33 PM

The guys who commented above are paid to scour the comments on anything that seems to be detrimental to their employers. Do not pay any heed to them. It's all a sham. They write only to mess with people's minds about wter. keep up the good work. Ignore them.

Comments are closed for this post.


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