Peter Gleick: Zero or All? What’s Really Happening in the Central Valley?

Here is a short post, with two Water Numbers, and a request for real information if readers have it.

Water Numbers: 0 and 100
These are the fractions of water allocations that some farmers in California are getting (or so we sometimes hear) from the Federal Water projects. Now, before I present my request for information, here is a bit of background.

There is a drought — a combination of three dry years, over-allocations from reservoirs drawing them down low, and what some call a “regulatory drought” of additional shortfalls imposed to satisfy environmental flow requirements. This has led to cutbacks in water deliveries from, especially, the “federal” dams and infrastructure of the Central Valley Project (but also from the State Water Project facilities). Because of the odd water rights structures, this means that some users (senior water rights holders) may be getting all, or almost all of their allocations, while other users (junior rights holders) may be getting nothing, or close to it, even when they live literally next door to each other.

Peter Gleick
Dr. Peter Gleick is president of the Pacific Institute, an internationally recognized water expert and a MacArthur Fellow.

But: When you read in the media, or on websites or blogs, that some farmers are getting zero (0) water allocations this year, more detailed questions should be asked and some skepticism is warranted.

First of all, it is no longer zero — even the federal projects revised early estimates upward, albeit modestly, due to late season precipitation.

Second of all, a zero allocation from federal projects does not mean zero water is available. Some, if not all, growers have access to other water, through pumping more groundwater, using other surface supplies, or arranging temporary transfers from other users.

Third, the odd pictures we’ve seen of some farmers with very low allocations (close to zero) right next door to others with very high allocations (as much as 100%) highlights the historical reality of (and difficulty with) western, appropriative rights law under conditions of real scarcity.

So here are a few questions I’d love thoughts on and even answers to:

1. Instead of hearing how some growers are getting zero (or low) allocations, what are the totals for CVP (Central Valley Project, federal system) deliveries this year — how much actual water will still be delivered by the CVP, compared to other years?

2. How many farmers (or how much acreage) are getting 100% of their federal allocations this year; how many are really getting zero?

3. How much did these same farmers get in an average (is there such a thing anymore?) year?

4. How much extra groundwater will be pumped, in million acre feet? [Anyone who can actually provide an answer to this gets a gold star, but evidence/references must be provided.]

Dr. Gleick’s blog posts are provided in cooperation with the SFGate. Previous posts can be found here.