California’s Water Dilemma

Part 2: Water [Data] Scarcity

By Arian Aghajanzadeh

December 13, 2023

Examples of Publicly Available California Drought and Water Data (Source: Pacific Institute)

In our previous blog post, we explored the significant challenges facing our water delivery system, highlighting how an outdated infrastructure has led to suboptimal use of surface water resources and stressed our groundwater aquifers. While there are numerous tools, solutions, and funding resources available to mitigate these issues, the crux of the problem lies in the absence of comprehensive data.

The lack of data makes it challenging to accurately pinpoint where and how these solutions should be implemented. In this blog post, we emphasize the critical role of data in addressing water scarcity, and we explore the historical precedents that contributed to this data scarcity in the first place. Understanding these factors is essential to fully grasp the complexities and potential solutions in managing California’s water resources more effectively.

Data-Driven Modernization

In our research on opportunities to modernize California’s water system, we observed various efforts including canal lining, building regulating reservoirs, installing automated gates (as shown in Figure 1), and adopting SCADA systems (a sophisticated centralized control system). Aimed at achieving operational efficiencies within districts, these upgrades are implemented in a piecemeal fashion, often addressing one-off needs rather than implementing system-wide changes. This ad hoc approach is frequently driven by the availability of funding. While it has led to successes in isolated water agencies, we have yet to see significant impact at the state level.

Figure 1. Examples of existing go-to strategies for infrastructure upgrades. From left to right: canal lining, regulating reservoirs, and automation.(Sources: GOMACO, TID, Rubicon Water)

Beyond funding, another reason modernization efforts have been implemented at a regional rather than state level is because the data necessary for justifying these investments is lacking. The absence of comprehensive, accurate, and granular data makes it very challenging to create a unified, effective modernization strategy. Without it, we risk pursuing isolated projects that, while locally beneficial, cannot be scaled to meet the broader goal of establishing a sustainable and efficient water management system across California.

The Limitations of Current Water Data

There are several agricultural water datasets currently collected and maintained by the State Water Resources Control Board and the California Department of Water Resources. These include Agricultural Water Management Plans, which are submitted every five years, and Aggregated Farm Gate Delivery Reports, submitted annually. Other datasets include Points of Diversion and Groundwater Measurements. The Water Conservation Act of 2009 (Senate Bill X7-7) played a pivotal role in initiating the collection of much of this data. While these datasets serve as a valuable starting point, they come with limitations, notably in their accuracy and spatial and temporal resolution. The review process for these reports, as conducted by the Department of Water Resources, is more of a compliance check rather than an in-depth audit, focusing on whether responses are provided rather than their accuracy.

Take the farmgate delivery reports as an example: submitted annually for the prior water year, these reports detail how much aggregate water is delivered by an irrigation district on a monthly or bi-monthly basis. However, in the context of California’s irrigated agriculture, water deliveries can happen at sub-weekly intervals, the monthly data from these reports falls short for detailed analysis and planning purposes. For effective water management, especially in the context of precision agriculture, there’s a critical need for data with finer granularity—ideally on a weekly or daily basis. Higher-quality data will not only allow us to better direct infrastructure investments, it may also conserve water. Our preliminary analyses show that agricultural water supply and demand are often mismatched in both directions. Real-time monitoring of water flows and upgrades that shorten the water demand response time would allow water managers to avoid sending water when it is not needed and deliver water closer to the optimal levels for maximizing crop yields.

Navigating the Political Landscape of Water Data

Throughout our research, one of our significant yet often overlooked findings is that many water agencies are reluctant to share data. Some of the reluctance is due to perceived fear of litigation, regulatory fines, and scrutiny of water rights. Water in the West is deeply entangled with power and politics (Figure 2) which is marked by centuries of conflict over water rights and usage. While statewide statistics are accessible, granular details about water delivery, distribution, and consumption, particularly in the agricultural sector, remain challenging to access.

At Klimate Consulting, we understand the perspective of irrigation districts in this regard. Our aim in this blog post is to highlight how more accurate and granular data can make water conveyance systems more efficient, reduce groundwater withdrawals, and improve farmers’ ability to get the right amount of water when they need it.

Figure 2. William Mulholland and the Los Angeles Aqueduct. (Source: Water and Power) “If we can’t bring water to Los Angeles, we will take Los Angeles to the water.” This iconic quote reflects the deep entanglement of water with power, politics, and the enduring conflicts over water rights.

This reluctance to collect and share comprehensive agricultural water delivery data is stymying our progress toward water sustainability, which is essential for the continued viability of California’s agriculture system as well as all of the other sectors that depend on water supplies. As we modernize our water system for the 21st century, we need to upgrade water data infrastructure alongside the infrastructure projects we more commonly think of. Without the comprehensive insights gleaned from an effective data system, we will never be able to utilize the limited resources we have in the most optimal way possible.

Forging Trust: The Real Task Ahead

To harness the power of data for effective water management, we must undertake the equally if not more challenging task of building trust among all stakeholders. This means changing long-standing narratives. We must shift our perspective from viewing data as a potential liability—a risk of potential litigation or regulation—to recognizing it as an ally and invaluable resource. All actors in the sector must work together to make this perspective a true and fair assumption.

Data, when collected and made publicly available, can become a tool for growth, conservation, and efficiency. When water data are made widely available, it can facilitate precise planning, align supply with demand, and optimize irrigation schedules, which in turn enhance farmer satisfaction, and reduce operational costs.

The collaboration between the California Rice Commission, California Trout, Ducks Unlimited, the Northern California Water Association, Reclamation District 108, and River Garden Farms is a remarkable example of diverse stakeholders taking collective action toward sustainable water management. This unique alliance of water agencies, conservationists, and farmers demonstrates how combining scientific insights with practical efforts can transform regional waterways and floodplains, benefiting farms, the environment, and local communities (Figure 3).

Figure 3. Migratory birds using flooded rice fields as surrogate wetland habitat in Northern California (Source: River Garden Farms).
By recognizing the value of data, investing in infrastructure for data collection and management, and collectively buying into the idea that water transparency should be rewarded, we can chart a course toward a more resilient and prosperous water future.

At Klimate Consulting, we understand the intricacies of water resources management, agricultural sustainability, and the broader implications for our food system. We provide research-based insights and strategic guidance to organizations aiming to navigate the complexities of sustainability. To learn more about how we can help you achieve your organizational goals, get in touch or book a free consultation with us.