23 July 2013

Overallocation and why it persists

I talk to a lot of people about sustainable water management. One recurring question is "why does this situation persist, and what can be done to change it?"

My answer to this question is usually that it persists because politicians -- the ones who can change the laws affecting water allocations -- like it that way. Why do they not reform the system to put it on a sustainable basis? Because that action would reduce their power.

This logic clarifies why it's so rare to find information of who has water rights, how much they total, and how they compare to actual water flows. These data are easy to gather in theory, but they cannot or will not be gathered without support or funding from the public administration that can order the data collected.

What we get instead is typical: a politician promises more water than there is to constituents seeking favors. In many instances, overallocations are not noticed because they are not publicized or compared to actual supply (the data problem) but also because it may take years or extreme events to reveal that the sum of allocations over time is too large.

The Colorado River Compact of 1922 is a famous example of an allocation that suffered two flaws. First, the river was overallocated according to flows -- 16.4 million acre feet (MAF) of allocations were given out when average flows were 13.2 MAF. Second, the allocations were in terms of quantities instead of percentages. Why was Colorado water allocated that way? Politicians sought to please as many people as possible with water rights, so they gave away 100 percent of what they thought was there (no safety margin, let alone environmental flows). Politicians also wanted to give people firm property rights in fixed quantities of water, which would make it easier to farm, build cities, etc. Percentage shares would have been MUCH better in terms of sustainability and reality, but water users don't like hearing they are going to get 80 percent of some number they prefer.*

So the Colorado River was broken from the start, and it's not getting any better... because politicians do not want to reconfigure rights to users (not states) on a percentage basis. They want to keep rights at the state level -- to manipulate and reward their fans -- and negotiate adjustments in smoke-merlot- filled rooms.

I'm hopeful for data collection projects that will point out the gap between water rights and water reality, but I'm sad that the powers that be -- those who could speed those projects up by a factor of 10 -- are not giving logistical, legal or financial help. The powers that be prefer failure that delivers job security to them to reform and success that sidelines them.

Bottom Line: Water scarcity is rising in many places. It will cause the most harm where politicians try to hide or control the problem.
* I see that SWP and CVP allocations in California are below 50 percent for irrigators. I wonder when if we're going to hear talk about markets for water, or if the agricultural sector is just expecting to get screwed bailed out.


  1. I notice that both you and Robert Glennon believe water policy will line up with reality only when water markets accurately measure out available water. This year DWR and USBR are facilitating several groundwater substitution (GWS) water transfers allowing Sacramento Valley irrigation districts to sell portions of their river entitlements to San Luis Delta Mendota Water Agency and replace the marketed water with aquifer water coming from new wells paid for by Federal and State grant money. Glennon called these GWS transfers "bogus" but the marketers say that exercising the aquifer system will create storage space for future wet years.

    The aquifers in the northern Sac Valley are showing a declining trend with the existing demand. This GWS scheme, designed to enhance "water reliability" for growers south of delta, is adding to the demand. Over the past decades streams and wetlands located in the recharge areas have been going dry annually for longer periods as the base flow is reduced.

    In this case the water market is assuming groundwater can be folded into the supply to conceal the over-allocation of surface water. The irrigation districts (comprising 1% of the population in the North Sac Valley) are the only entities participating in GWS sales.

    While Butte County Supervisors are unanimously oppossed to GWS transfers, the state/federal polititians that represent the region refuse to voice their position. When asked they inevitably describe their support for "new storage".

    AquAlliance, along with Calif Water Impact Network and Calif Sportfishing Protection Alliance, are resisting the groundwater heist.

    I hope you will describe your thoughts on GWS water marketing.

    Jim Brobeck, water policy analyst, AquAlliance

  2. @Jim -- Thanks for the interesting example. I agree that it's bogus but I've been laughing for a day now on "exercising" the aquifer. I think they said the same about the 10 year old kids working in the mines: great exercise! better than school!

    Regarding GWS, I'd say that exports/sales/transfers/pumping are fine *as long as* they stay within reasonable limits (i.e., reasonable = total flows - sustainable diversions). Note that the fight over reasonable arises from different definitions of sustainable diversions; people's definitions range from 0 to 100 percent of flows.

  3. Somehow this sounds familiar. I might hold true not only for water, but also for governmental (or EU) funding. That's why citizens need to pay the debts caused by their governments.

  4. I believe that the people that lived in what is now known as the Sacramento River Watershed were able to endure the mega-droughts in comfort because of the robust buffering of a balanced aquifer system. I believe that this area is capable of providing refuge from the extreme weather predicted in the coming decades if the people here are able to defend the aquifer system from unreasonable demands from areas located outside of the SRWatershed.


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