Tech

Can California Water Rights Enter the Digital Age?

From an unassuming office in Sacramento, Matthew Jay is able to pinpoint every moment in California history when someone was granted the right to transfer water from a particular lake, river, creek or creek.

As an analyst with the California State Water Resources Control Board, he is custodian of millions of securities. Some are over a hundred years old and crammed into towering filing cabinets and vaults. The room is so heavy that its floor had to be reinforced.

“When I started opening some of these files, my first thought was, ‘I have to be very careful with these old, old documents,'” Jay said. “They are printed on the equivalent of tissue paper.”

But in the world’s fifth-largest economy — a state where global warming is contributing to longer and more frequent droughts — regulators say trust in such an antiquated system is troubling. They say the lack of a comprehensive digital system and complete information about who has the right to use water and how much they are actually using makes basic water management in the state mysterious at best and inaccurate at worst.

After 13 years working in the archive room, Jay can easily cite the most notable water users documented there: There’s Mike Yurosek, inventor of baby carrots. Coppola Wineries, the winery founded by Francis Ford Coppola following his blockbuster Godfather trilogy. and Glenn-Colusa Irrigation District, which provides rice farmers north of Sacramento with enough water to supply the city of Los Angeles multiple times. But researching the location of each water right granted along a waterway like the Shasta River can take up to a year.

California’s Byzantine system of water rights dates back to the Gold Rush, when miners declared their rights to water by nailing paper signs to trees. The oldest rightsholders have seniority, and when the state restricts water use in times of drought, these older rightsholders are the last to be restricted, if at all.

California’s lack of timely and useful data became all too evident during the 2012-2016 drought, leading to new regulations that filled a clunky data portal with new water-use information. Problems persisted during this latest drought, however, as regulators used outdated and incomplete data to enact cuts last summer.

Matthew Jay and Assistant Water Rights Director Erik Ekdahl in the records room of the State Water Resources Control Board.

Analyst Matthew Jay (left) and Assistant Water Rights Director Erik Ekdahl in the records room of the State Water Resources Control Board. The room contains the history of California’s water rights and is so cluttered with paper that the floor had to be reinforced.

(Ari Plachta / Los Angeles Times)

“We’ve fallen behind the curve on this in a really shocking way,” said Felicia Marcus, former chair of the Water Board under Gov. Jerry Brown and a visiting fellow at Stanford University. “Without actionable data, people can say what they want to say. So let’s get the data. This is how good water management works.”

That year, Gov. Gavin Newsom approved $33 million as part of an excess budget to modernize California’s water rights information system. It’s the latest effort in an uneven regulatory history that has attempted to make water use in the state more transparent.

Erik Ekdahl, deputy director of the state water agency, said the process of combining water supply information from the Ministry of Water Resources, water rights documentation from the record room, patchy needs data reported by users themselves, and environmental requirements for each watershed is tedious and complicated.

The forthcoming data system, currently in the contract phase, will be mapped, searchable and have water diversion and rights information at your fingertips. The idea is to build a spatial picture of California’s water use, with the ultimate goal of setting up a telemetry system where water meters are directly connected to the internet.

“This isn’t changing climate, this is changing climate… We should expect to make cuts again, and maybe more often, maybe in two years, maybe next year,” Ekdahl said. “Right now we are making data-driven decisions, but data is a huge investment in time and money. We are creating the conditions to actually make all this information accessible and to create the possibility for people to make data-driven decisions themselves.”

California’s water data problems don’t end with the digitization of paper records, information used primarily for long-term planning. The state is uniquely obscure about how much water is being used and by whom at any given moment compared to other western states like Colorado. This is especially true for agriculture — the $50 billion industry that uses about 80% of surface water supplies.

It was 2009 when the state ordered urban and agricultural water districts to report how much water they deliver to their customers — through the mail — without using a meter. By 2015, a new law required even more water users to measure and report annually how much water they take from waterways.

But since this law came into force, fewer than 20% have complied with it for a long time “Deficiency List” from rightsholders who have not responded. An even smaller percentage follow the latest reporting rules that have been adopted in recent years, according to the Water Board.

The data has glaring errors, like numbers being in acre-feet instead of gallons, and it’s a year old when regulators use it. Laws governing California water can also encourage users to claim more than the proportion of water they actually use, known as the “use it or lose it” doctrine.

That’s why Michael Kiparsky, director of the Water Wheeler Center at UC Berkeley, says the upcoming system is just a step in the right direction towards effective California water management. His team researched water law data to build one prototype — Scanning, digitizing and assigning metadata to over 130,000 pages of Mono Basin water rights documents.

“Hopefully this database will be a piece of the puzzle that will allow people to discover new ways of water management in California that could lead us to a less painful future,” Kiparsky said.

Even if completed at a breakneck pace of two years, the technical and cost barriers to reporting information in rural areas, as well as reluctance to share information with the government, will remain.

A water law attorney representing water districts and farmers is skeptical that regulators will act faster and better informed in times of drought, despite having access to more information.

“You have a whole group of people who have the data. They live with the data and don’t really trust the board to do anything good with it. They are not enthusiastic about the ad because they fear it will be used against them,” they said. “There’s a big trust issue.”

A new technological venture that uses satellite-based estimates of evapotranspiration to measure water aims to provide farmers with a less invasive and free means of submitting data. The organization, called OpenET, is a collaboration between NASA, Google Earth, and the Environmental Defense Fund.

Fifth-generation farmer in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta and attorney for the Central Delta Water Agency, Brett Baker, is familiar with these longstanding trust issues and hopes the new outside technology can help meet farmers’ reporting obligations.

“Hopefully this will fulfill the reporting requirement and improve their understanding,” he said of the water agency. “I think this is a real opportunity for us to work in reality with really useful data, rather than just making things up that fit the narrative.”

Matthew Jay, meanwhile, will be helping the Water Board as a record-keeping consultant of sorts to digitize the water rights system and will continue to do the most rewarding part of his job – helping people learn about water rights.

“It’s about giving people that customer service so they can research and do their own research about what water rights exist on a property,” he said, and just make people aware that water rights even exist.

https://www.latimes.com/california/story/2021-12-27/can-california-water-rights-enter-the-digital-age Can California Water Rights Enter the Digital Age?

Tom Vazquez

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