California Takes Water Straight to the Bank

Citing two years of low precipitation and barren water reserves, California officials have announced a plan to purchase water from Sacramento Valley farmers and sell it to Southern state agencies – a program that’s been dormant in the Golden state for 17 years. The fear of yet another drought this year is pushing the programs revival: statewide precipitation this year has only been 45 percent of average, making it the fourth driest year of the 114 years on record.

“We’re hoping for the best, that we’re going to have a good storm season and be able to meet the needs of California,” said state Department of Water Resources Director Lester Snow. “However, we would be negligent if we didn’t prepare for the worst.”

This “water bank” was last used in 1992, during the final year of a six year drought. Those that sold water were in districts holding generous, century-old water rights on the Sacramento, Yuba and Feather rivers. The buyers were urban communities in the San Francisco and Los Angeles areas. The largest buyer in ’92 was the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California.

Schwarzenegger officially declared a drought this past June, stating that nine counties in the farm-rich Central Valley are in a state of emergency due to low water supplies after two years of below-average rainfall. In the Northern Sierra, this spring and summer were the driest on record since 1921. Additionally, 2007 and 2008 made up the ninth driest two-year period in 88 years of record keeping for the Northern Sierra.

California’s water shortages have also been compounded by a federal court order to limit pumping water from the state’s San Joaquin-Sacramento River Delta to protect a species of fish.

“While we are taking action to address the state’s drought situation, there remains an urgent need for Californians to step up conservation efforts and for the legislature to pass a comprehensive water plan that will ensure California has the water it needs to keep our economy strong and our people working,” Schwarzenegger added.

Along with a shortage on water, this time around there might also be a shortage on sellers. Farm commodity prices are higher – especially rice – providing a larger incentive for growing crops than selling water. No water district sold more water to the state water bank in 1991 than Western Canal Water District, which serves rice farmers in Butte and Glenn counties. But general manager Ted Trimble said things are different now. He noted that in February his district had arranged to sell water at $200 an acre-foot to Southern California water districts in a sale separate from the state water bank. But when the price of rice more than doubled in March, Trimble said, almost half of the growers who were going to forgo planting some acres changed their minds.

“I just don’t know how much water we’re going to be able to make available to make a difference,” Trimble said.

Also, several of the counties tapped last time around now have restrictions on groundwater pumping since many neighbors of the water sellers were forced to dig deeper wells when excessive pumping drew down aquifers. Hopefully between conservation efforts and the water bank, California can get its water crisis under control.

Related posts:

“Show Me the Water”
Increasing Water Security with Rainwater Catchment
Las Vegas Ripping Up Lawns to Save Water, But is it Enough?

Image source: jesiehart on Flickr

About the Author

is a web developer, part-time blogger, and a full-time environmentalist. His crusade for all things eco started twenty years ago when he ditched his meat-and-potatoes upbringing for something more vegetarian-shaped. His passions include cooking, green tech, eco politics, and smart green design. And while he doesn’t own a car anymore, he loves to write about those too. Jerry studied at Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo, CA. During his time there he was a DJ at the campus station KCPR and he also wrote for the campus paper. Jerry currently resides in San Francisco, CA with his cat Lola. You can stalk him on Twitter @jerryjamesstone.

  • We are water gluttons.

  • Jerry James Stone

    re: Karlene Gullone

    Anytime! Thanks for reading…

  • Jerry James Stone

    re: Brianne

    Yah, stuff has been off for a while here in SF too. I used to get cold here sometimes! Now its a lot more mild.

  • Karlene Gullone

    Thanks for the info! I thought Northern Cal. always sent water down to So.Cal. Thanks for clarifying.
    Also thanks for reminding us we are in a drought and need to conserve!

  • I knew it. I’d been telling everyone that the weather has been funky lately here in Southern California. I mean the April showers, if you can call them that, were in May and June gloom arrived in mid-July. It’s been hotter than I remember as a kid, and it’s about time someone else said something. Thank you. It’ll be interesting to see how high water prices go if this gets worse before getting better.