New Water Rights Atlas exaggerates CA water problems

California Water Rights Atlas screen captureApril 22, 2013

By Wayne Lusvardi

The Resource Renewal Institute, an environmental activist organization, recently posted online its new California Water Rights Atlas. The atlas alarmingly asserts:

“Currently, water rights holders claim they divert [that is, use] in aggregate approximately 250 million acre feet of water each year. California receives 71 million acre feet of usable water from annual precipitation.” 

The inference is that mainly farmers are over-drafting underground water supplies. But is this accurate? 

First, according to the State Department of Water Resources, the amount of average annual rainfall in California is 194.2 million acre-feet, or 2.7 times the atlas’s number of 71 million.

It is widely reported that California gets about 30 percent of its water from groundwater sources.  The average amount of water supplied for urban, agricultural and environmental uses in a year is 82.5 million acre-feet, again according to the State DWR.  Thirty percent of 82.5 million acre-feet of water amounts to 24.75 million acre-feet, not 71-million acre-feet.

So the Water Rights Atlas understates the amount of average California rainfall by 2.7 times.  And the amount of water supplied from subsurface resources is inflated by 2.8 times. Unfortunately, the media have accepted these mistaken estimates as reliable. And the incorrect estimates ignore that groundwater storage capacity is 10 times that of all the state’s surface reservoirs combined.

Groundwater numbers

It is easy to exaggerate groundwater withdrawals during dry years and ignore  replenishment during wet years. Water activists often don’t see that farm water is not equal to the sum of groundwater pumping.  The consumption of water by crops is much less than the water applied.

The rest of the water recharges the groundwater basin.  Installing meters on farm water wells does not “measure” the farm’s groundwater usage, because as much as 50 percent of that may percolate back into the groundwater table.

Is a catastrophe looming to justify statewide monitoring and regulating of farmers’ legal rights to use uncontaminated water on their own properties? Some analysts, including Peter Gleick of the Pacific Institute and Catherine Freeman of the California Legislative Analyst’s Office, assert that unregulated water rights holders are hurting the public and the environment.

But the over-drafting of water basins in Southern California ended decades ago due to adjudications and infusions of imported water.  Adjudicated water basins are a model of successful self-regulation.

On the other hand, the Tulare Lake Basin in Central California has overdraft problems during dry years. But this can be addressed locally.  A Stanford study by Rebecca Nelson found that groundwater over-drafting is already being addressed at the local level.

The claims of impending catastrophe ignore that local institutions are already in place to protect groundwater.  There is little to no recognition, for instance, that the California Groundwater Association, a non-profit organization with 40,000 members, has been operating efficiently since 1948.

Is Water Conservation a Solution or Part of the Problem?

Contrary to popular notions, water conservation efforts have resulted in diminished groundwater recharge.  This is because groundwater supplies during dry years rely on irrigation inefficiencies during wet years.

Agricultural conservation leads to what is called the “rebound effect”: the more water that is available due to conservation, the more acres of crops are put into cultivation.   There is little recognition by environmental groundwater crusaders that conservation itself, not use, could be the source of any future crisis that they foresee.

Groundwater Catastrophe is Sociological, Not Hydrological

The report of a looming statewide groundwater catastrophe is not only overblown.  It reflects a misperception of the important role of farmers in California’s economy and ecology.

In fact, if it weren’t for farmers erecting dikes and levees in the Delta, salmon would “drown” and flooding would periodically ruin Delta ecosystems.  Social activism to restore salmon runs — and create new jobs for environmentalists — is now destroying farmers’ jobs in the Central Valley, as I reported earlier this month.

There is a culture water war going on in California over groundwater, green jobs and political power at the expense of agricultural jobs and productivity.   This is not to ignore or diminish real groundwater over-drafting problems that can be solved at the local level.

As Jay Lund, professor at U.C. Davis’s Center for Watershed Sciences, has aptly summed up California’s groundwater situation: “Effective management of overdraft, salinization and contamination also will require a long-term perspective and technical efforts — through the end of the 21st Century and beyond.  This requires an important, if limited, role for the state.”

It does not require a vast expansion of government regulation.


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  1. Laci Videmsky
    Laci Videmsky 22 April, 2013, 17:17

    The 71 million is “usable” water. Remember, you need to account for evaporation. See below:

    On average, roughly 200 million acre-feet (maf) of precipitation fall annually on California. Most of this water evaporates, particularly in the hottest and driest areas of the state. The remainder, known as “unimpaired runoff” (averaging about 75 maf/year) flows downhill into streams and groundwater basins, and becomes available for management and use (Table 2.1).


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  2. Itachee
    Itachee 23 April, 2013, 08:25

    The exaggeration is in many ways worse than described. I reviewed the so called Atlas in a couple of geographic areas in the San Joaquin Valley with which I am closely and first hand familiar with the water rights and found many misleading, duplicate and erroneous listing. For example:
    – one fairly large water right, 71,000 acre feet per year, was listed 4 times in 4 different locations,
    – in another case the very large water rights for hydroelectric projects were not only listed more than once but failed of acknowledge those rights are for seasonal storage only, not for consumptive use,
    – another water right was listed as active despite the fact it was bought out and legally abandoned when that part of the Central Valley Project was built, in 1947,
    – and there were other listings I observed of legally abandoned water rights still being listed.

    Admittedly I also found a few instances of small (less than 100 AF) water rights that were not included. But those were very much the exception.

    My review was only for two geographic areas with which I have experience and lead me to conclude the Atlas is largely worthless and intended to drum up support for an agenda.

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  3. Laci Videmsky
    Laci Videmsky 23 April, 2013, 10:36

    Hi Itachee,

    As one of the co-creators of the Atlas, I assure you there is no “agenda” other than increased accessibility and transparency of state managed data. We have identical data to what the State Water Board collects and maintains. If the data is wrong, I encourage you to bring it up with the SWRCB. When they change it, our Atlas will update automatically.

    You are very likely correct in your discovery. There are most definitely other areas where such instances exist. Showing bad data in a clear and easy to understand fashion is just as powerful as good data. That said, the SWRCB has offered to work with us to get this data in better shape, and make it easier to access.

    We are citizens who are open data advocates, and volunteer our time for various Open Government initiatives. If you haven’t heard of this term, check out:

    Your post inspired me to imagine a new feature for the site. An interface where one can submit a claim or a correction to a claim. A dot would appear clearly as pending and not “official”. Others then could see the claim and offer their insights (a virtual town hall). After a set period of time, the “correction” forwards to the SWRCB’s inbox, and a time ticker starts showing the time elapsed for awaiting official reply. Just thought. You wanna help ? 🙂

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  4. Wayne Lusvardi
    Wayne Lusvardi 23 April, 2013, 12:45

    Mr. Vidernsky

    Now you are mixing rainwater and usable water but the Water Atlas website made no such distinction

    Your website uses data from two different classifications of water without disclosure and then use the difference between the two to claim there is some sort of groundwater crisis

    You also might clarify for readers who you are

    Laci Videmsky – Architecture graduate of Harvard University

    Project director at Resource Renewal Institute that sponsored the study

    Reply this comment
  5. Laci Videmsky
    Laci Videmsky 23 April, 2013, 14:14

    Hi Wayne,

    Yes, we could do a better job making this statement clearer (I will update the site to show 200MAF rain & 71MAF “usable” water). Still nothing erroneous or intentionally misleading as it stands. Also, this does not change the issue at hand in the very least.

    I did disclose who I was in my reply above. Yes, a Google search will return a number of public profiles of mine. For others, feel free to contact me through linkedin or any other medium if you want to participate in making this data better for our state. We have had some of the most talented water professionals, and folks from the technology community step forward to help push this forward.

    Reply this comment
  6. Wayne Lusvardi
    Wayne Lusvardi 23 April, 2013, 14:35

    The insinuation of your research is that if something is not “accessible” there must be some sort of crime going on.

    Instead of researching databases to find alleged crimes by farmers you might do some real field research. Go out and talk to farmers and they will show you how water is used and managed.

    Marc Reisner who wrote the famous book Cadillac Desert recanted the thesis of his book after he went to observe first hand how rice farmers jointly used estuaries and water sources for ducks and other wildlife.

    I notice you have not responded to my charge that water conservation may bring about a depletion of subsurface water supplies. Talk to some farm water hydrologists about this.

    Reply this comment

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