Spreck Rosekrans is an Economic Analyst at EDF.
As California is experiencing a third consecutive dry year, in 2009 less water will be available for our cities, farms and natural environment. Due to our “first in time, first in right” water laws, however, some areas of the state will have plentiful supplies while others will suffer severe shortages.
The latest water supply update from the Bureau of Reclamation illustrates the wide range of reliability in water supply that exists in California. The Bureau’s Central Valley Project expects to deliver 100% of contractual supply to its "water rights" contractors along the Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers, 85% to its Friant Division contractors, but zero to its south-of-Delta “Contract Agriculture” customers, including Westlands Water District.
For more than three decades, Environmental Defense Fund has advocated for the use of transfers - the purchase of water supplies between willing sellers and buyers – as a tool for ensuring that water is available for its most productive uses. We believe that increased availability of transfers can provide supplies where they are needed without building additional dams or increasing diversions from the natural environment.
While we believe transfers are an important tool, we do not believe all transfers are good or should even be allowed. Transfers can result in depletion of groundwater basins and employment impacts in areas from which water is sold, and potentially the permanent conversion of farmland as well. But given the huge imbalance in the way supplies are allocated throughout California (and other western states), it is important to pursue transfer opportunities, especially in dry years like 2009.
Many think of transfers as growing cities buying water from agriculture. Most transfers in California, however, are from one farmer to another. Westlands Water District, at the end of the line for its CVP water rights, has installed enough drip irrigation strips to reach the moon. In years like 2009, they eagerly buy whatever the neighboring and better-endowed San Joaquin Exchange Contractors have to sell. As a result of these opportunities to sell some of their supplies, the Exchange Contractors are installing drip irrigation as well.
The discrepancies in California’s water supply system will become all the more apparent during this summer as some communities experience severe shortages while others experience none. The impacts will be lessened, however, in areas where communities have the opportunity to purchase additional supplies through transfers from willing sellers.