Despite opposition from an impressive who’s-who list of water
districts and agencies and the Kings County Farm Bureau, the
Kings County Board of Supervisors on a 3-2 vote adopted a
groundwater export ordinance that will require a permit to move
groundwater out of the county. Leading the charge was
Supervisor and farmer Doug Verboon, who says the passage came
after 12 years of battling to adopt an ordinance here to
protect local groundwater, an ordinance that most counties
already have. The county’s aim is to preserve groundwater for
local use, critical for both domestic, city, military and
In drought-prone northern California, limited water resources,
private water rights allocations, and inefficient transport and
use of water resources causes tension between freshwater
conservation and private landownership (Garibaldi et al. 2020,
Vissers 2017). In the face of a changing climate, drought
curtailments will likely become more frequent, ratchetting
stress on all water users (Vissers 2017). From an engineering
perspective, efficiently managing water rights as arid
landscapes become drier and less predictable will be essential
to preservation of working landscapes and the environment.
Water purchases and leases are a common tool for securing water
rights for environmental purposes. California recently
considered a budget proposal to allocate $1.5 billion to
buy-back private agricultural water rights to mitigate drought
and support ecological uses (Bork et al. 2022).
Colorado River water was virtually free in the early 20th
Century when pioneers dug the valley’s first canals that would
later transform this desert landscape into a $2 billion
agricultural industry. Imperial Valley farmers now pay about
$20 an acre foot to transport Colorado River water to their
fields, a price unchanged since 2011. … Farmers next door in
San Diego County pay between $799 and $1,109 per acre foot.
Even the Coachella Valley Water District, just north of
Imperial Valley, charges farmers about $37 per acre foot,
nearly twice what the Imperial Irrigation District charges its
farmers…. Because water is so cheap, Imperial Irrigation
District doesn’t make enough selling it to cover expenses on
water revenues alone….
Kings County Supervisors took a crack at a long-promised push
to restrict the ability of swashbuckling Kings County farming
giants to sell their groundwater to far-flung southern
California locales. Tuesday, the Kings County Board of
Supervisors approved the Groundwater Export Ordinance, which
was initially conceived to reign-in major water players in the
area, including water maven John Vidovich. Instead, based
on lingering commentary from local farmers, it may only create
additional red tape with the lack of teeth necessary to stop
outsiders from buying up water rights for the express purpose
of selling the resources to Southern California water agencies.
Productive agriculture is essential to civilization, but water
privateering – the seizure of public trust water for exorbitant
private profit – is not. California’s water privateers often
present themselves as farmers. But while they may use the water
they’ve commandeered from state and federal water conveyance
projects for industrial-scale agribusiness initiatives, they’re
not farmers. They’re water brokers. If there’s money to be made
in irrigating almonds or pistachios, they’ll do that. If
there’s more money to be made by selling their allocated water
to cities or other agribusiness operations, they’ll choose that
option instead. It’s not about a devotion to agriculture – and
certainly not about food security or land stewardship.
As water interests in the Colorado
River Basin prepare to negotiate a new set of operating
guidelines for the drought-stressed river, Amelia Flores wants
her Colorado River Indian Tribes (CRIT) to be involved in the
discussion. And she wants CRIT seated at the negotiating table
with something invaluable to offer on a river facing steep cuts
in use: its surplus water.
CRIT, whose reservation lands in California and Arizona are
bisected by the Colorado River, has some of the most senior water
rights on the river. But a federal law enacted in the late 1700s,
decades before any southwestern state was established, prevents
most tribes from sending any of its water off its reservation.
The restrictions mean CRIT, which holds the rights to nearly a
quarter of the entire state of Arizona’s yearly allotment of
river water, is missing out on financial gain and the chance to
help its river partners.
This tour ventured through California’s Central Valley, known as the nation’s breadbasket thanks to an imported supply of surface water and local groundwater. Covering about 20,000 square miles through the heart of the state, the valley provides 25 percent of the nation’s food, including 40 percent of all fruits, nuts and vegetables consumed throughout the country.
In the universe of California water, Tim Quinn is a professor emeritus. Quinn has seen — and been a key player in — a lot of major California water issues since he began his water career 40 years ago as a young economist with the Rand Corporation, then later as deputy general manager with the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, and finally as executive director of the Association of California Water Agencies. In December, the 66-year-old will retire from ACWA.
This printed issue of Western Water looks at California
groundwater and whether its sustainability can be assured by
local, regional and state management. For more background
information on groundwater please refer to the Foundation’s
Layperson’s Guide to Groundwater.
Although some water districts have coordinated use of surface
water and groundwater for years ,conjunctive use has become the
catchphrase when it comes to developing additional water supply
for the 21st century. This article focuses on conjunctive use. It
includes background information explaining how conjunctive use
works, discusses the potential storage capacity, provides an
overview of the hurdles that must be overcome to develop a
successful project, and profiles several projects.
The 20-page Layperson’s Guide to Water Marketing provides
background information on water rights, types of transfers and
critical policy issues surrounding this topic. First published in
1996, the 2005 version offers expanded information on
groundwater banking and conjunctive use, Colorado River
transfers and the role of private companies in California’s
developing water market.
Order in bulk (25 or more copies of the same guide) for a reduced
fee. Contact the Foundation, 916-444-6240, for details.
The 28-page Layperson’s Guide to
Water Rights Law, recognized as the most thorough explanation of
California water rights law available to non-lawyers, traces the
authority for water flowing in a stream or reservoir, from a
faucet or into an irrigation ditch through the complex web of
California water rights.