Welcome to “What’s Up With Water,” your need-to-know news of the world’s water from Circle of Blue. I’m Eileen Wray-McCann.
In the United Kingdom, regulators have temporarily given water utilities permission to treat wastewater to a lower standard. The waiver is due to utilities not having enough treatment chemicals. The BBC reports that the shortfall is not because of an inadequate national supply. It’s because of a failure of supply chains. At present, there are not enough truck drivers in the country, a labor shortage attributed to the pandemic and the country’s departure from the European Union. Government regulators expect that the chemical distribution problem will be short-lived. The supply chains for water treatment chemicals have also been disrupted in the United States, where surging Covid cases have spiked the demand for supplemental oxygen at hospitals. Oxygen is also used to remove odors from treated water. Utilities in Florida and Oklahoma have urged customers to conserve water so that treatment plant operators do not run out of oxygen.
In India, a government program is bringing running water to more homes in areas of high-poverty. The Hindustan Times reports that nearly 12 million households in the country’s poorest districts have been provided with piped water. That is a four-fold increase since 2019, in part due to the Jal Jeevan Mission, which aims to provide every rural household with a tap water connection by 2024.
In an unprecedented joint statement, over 200 medical journals have warned that the largest threat to global public health is climate change. Droughts can increase pollutant levels in groundwater. Floods in humid areas cause mold to grow, which can worsen respiratory illnesses such as  asthma. Intense heat waves are deadly for those without air conditioning or water. In the United States, public health systems are already under strain from climate catastrophes including flooding and heatwaves. Earlier this month, the federal government announced a new office that will focus on health problems linked to climate change.
This week, Circle of Blue reports on the tools California regulators have – and don’t have – to police water use in this very dry year.
Michael George is not a spy — but he does use some of the same equipment.
George is a lawyer by trade, and in his current role as Delta watermaster he oversees the use of water in one of the country’s most contested waterways.
The Delta in this case is the Sacramento-San Joaquin, a jumble of fertile land, diked islands, tidal flows, and meandering sloughs at the heart of California’s engineered water system. The delta is habitat for endangered salmon and smelt, a hydrological switchyard, where water moves east and west with the daily tides. Water is also transferred north to south via massive state and federally operated pumps. They supply farmers in Kern County as well as urbanites in Los Angeles, places hundreds of miles away.
Moving water around has special significance in this extremely dry year, when there is not enough to go around. In August, regulators at the State Water Resources Control Board voted to cut off many of the farms and towns that withdraw water from the Sacramento-San Joaquin watershed, which drains about 40 percent of California’s land. The curtailment order was one of several the Water Board made this year on behalf of depleted rivers. The Board said it was necessary in order to keep salt water out of the Delta, to protect fish species and preserve scarce supplies.
Though the current irrigation season is nearly over, the emergency regulation extends for one year. It is being challenged in court by cities and irrigators, who claim that the Water Board is exceeding its authority.
George is responsible for a small section of the watershed: about 750,000 acres, an area called the “legal Delta,” which extends from the I Street Bridge in Sacramento to the Stanislaus River, south of Stockton. He and other regulators have a variety of tools at their disposal to monitor and enforce the water rights system. They range from reports on water use filed by diverters to satellite imagery.
However, the effectiveness of those tools is limited by an antiquated system for tracking exactly who is authorized to divert water and how much they take. Earlier this year, a Water Board review noted the need for a thorough overhaul of the data management system, which was echoed in commentary from advocacy groups and academics.
Policing the use of water in California is all the more difficult because the water rights system is complex and the data is patchy. The state’s water rights system is an unusual hybrid. It says that landownwers who abut a river have the right to withdraw water. This is called a riparian right. California also recognizes a type of right due to those who moved water away from the river via a ditch or canal. This is called an appropriative right.
Appropriative rights are further divided into those claimed before and after 1914. That’s the year in which the Legislature began issuing diversion permits. Riparian rights and pre-1914 rights don’t need permits, but courts have held that the state still has authority to regulate them under provisions of the state Constitution, which require that water use be reasonable and beneficial. Such use includes irrigation, recreation, municipal supply, and hydropower generation.
California’s hydrological situation is dynamic, so the State Water Resources Control Board is reviewing its curtailment orders weekly in case storms suddenly make more  water available. At present, most riparian rights holders are not cut off, while many post-1914 appropriative rights holders are cut off. But only in certain sub-watersheds.
Diane Riddle is at the Water Board, and acknowledges that because of the complex rules, people who divert water can sometimes be confused about their responsibilities. To avoid claims of ignorance of the laws, she told Circle of Blue, “the first step is to make sure everyone understands what their obligations are and how the curtailment process works.”
Riddle said the Water Board cannot identify every illegal diversion among the 17,000 water rights in the larger delta watershed. There isn’t enough staff and many of the rights are for tiny diversions like a livestock watering pond. But she said the Water Board does have the tools to identify the largest scofflaws – users that would affect water availability downstream. Some 90 per cent of the water used in the watershed is tied to only a few hundred water rights holders. If the number of complaints the Water Board receives is an accurate indicator, then improper diversions do spike during droughts. In 2014, a very dry year, nearly 200 complaints were filed, three times as many as the previous year.
To make sure that farmers or landowners aren’t illegally diverting water, George has an array of tools. He can check pesticide permits, which are required for applying the poison to fields. There are pumping logs and metering data, although those can be inaccurate due to peculiarities in the delta’s ebb-and-flow movements. There are annual reports that diverters are obligated to file.
Then there are the higher tech tools such as satellite imagery. George said that Google Earth is a digital sidekick. So are the images provided by the federal government’s Landsat or commercial space companies. As he put it, “Everyone knows we have an eye in the sky. If you’re going to irrigate that alfalfa, you’re going to take the risk that not only I will know in real time but after the drought I’ve got all that data I can sift through and I can time stamp when you were irrigating that field.”
George said that those tracking systems have changed behavior in the legal Delta. The disputes are not about quantities of water. They are instead about which right a diverter can claim. George explained “That risk of an audit trail is such that in our experience we don’t get much cheating. What we do get is arguments about the nature of their water rights or whether the data in our methodology is sufficient to curtail them. But we don’t have much disagreement about whether the pump was turned on or off.”
A new tool will help George get a more accurate read on water use for irrigated lands. OpenET is a platform for estimating water consumed by crops that’s based on satellite data. Delta agencies have been testing the platform since March and starting October 1 they will run it full time for the next water year. George said that water users in the Delta have concluded that the platform is “reliable and credible.”
Open ET is one of several technological advances that could modernize how California oversees water rights. Back in the day, its system began with notices tacked to trees and that continues today with paper records kept in filing cabinets. George says that it’s essential to advance into digital record-keeping. The future begins with better information about who is using water and how much they are taking.
And that’s “What’s Up With Water,” from Circle of Blue, where water speaks. More water news and analysis await you at This is Eileen Wray-McCann – thanks for being here.