Who’s Deceiving Whom on Water Usage Numbers?
For quite some time, there’s been a little debate going on in California over the true numbers describing how much water is used in the Golden State for urban dwellers, businesses and industry compared to farms, the environment and other activities.
This argument is a bit strange, since the California Department of Water Resources (DWR) publishes its detailed analyses of water use statistics for the past and water regulatory agencies publish current data.
The true question becomes one of who is fudging the facts and why.
In a broad generalization, conservation and environmental groups like to say that 80 percent of California’s water is used by Agriculture, with the remaining 20 percent being used for urban centers. However, if you note that environmental use is missing — that is, water for wildlife refuges, habitat, fish, water quality, water temperature, and other purposes not directly related to man — you would be right. Factoring those uses in changes the ratio significantly.
Urban water districts, irrigation districts, agricultural interests and DWR agree that the breakdown is roughly 50 percent to environmental uses, 40 percent to irrigation and 10 percent to urban uses, at least as an average over the period from 1998 to 2010.
“Foul,” cries the other side. They say that those statistics are for all water use, including water flowing in wild and scenic rivers lacking dams or diversions. They argue without basis; DWR shows the same rough breakdown if one only considers consumption of so-called “developed water,” e.g. water captured and released from dams and drawn from underground reservoirs.
They also ignore that the ratios were much different back in the day. Environmental use of developed water really emerged in the early 1990s; before that, the 80-20% split between irrigation and urban uses was pretty close to correct. There was no “environmental use” before the late 1980s.
But, since 1990, environmental uses have grown by leaps and bounds. By 2010, it was taking up fully half of all the developed water in the state. The same groups promoting the false statistic say that it is only right and just that even more water should go to the environment, and they regularly sue in court to accomplish that aim.
Then came the drought. Over the past five years, urban conservation shrank the amount of water used by households, businesses and industry, peaking in 2015. At its low point, DWR claims that urban use dropped to less than six percent of total use as cities conserved 25 percent or more of their water.
Lack of hydrologic supply and delivery cutbacks shrank agriculture’s water availability over the same period as well, causing the fallowing of about a million acres of productive farmland and the loss of billions of dollars of crops. Where urban dwellers cut their use about 25 percent, agriculture topped 30% reductions.
So what happened to the proportion of environmental uses of the remaining water supply? Let’s look at a summary provided by The Water Agency, Inc., drawn from records provided by DWR, U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, the State Water Project and other sources.
Between February 1, 2014 and August 7, 2016, 69.6% of all the water flowing down the combined Sacramento, San Joaquin, and various Eastside rivers and streams to the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta Estuary (“Delta”) passed through the Delta and into the Pacific Ocean. Urban and irrigation uses in the Delta and through water pumped south of the Delta made up the difference, 29.4 percent. The portion due to water pumped south was 19.4 percent, with 10.0 percent consumed within the Delta itself by municipalities and farmers.
Said another way, of the 27,584,300 acre-feet of water that flowed into the Delta during the period, 19,191,700 acre-feet were used to improve water quality, reduce salinity, enhance habitats, cool rivers for migrating endangered species of salmon and steelhead, protect the Delta smelt and provide wildlife refuges with water — environmental uses. At several points during the spring of 2016, water managers were dumping water out of reservoirs to protect them from deluges and possible flooding.
So, in recap: before 1990, a tiny percent of water use in California served environmental purposes. It grew steadily through 2010 to become fully half of all the developed water our state manages. In the worst years of the 2012-2016 drought, environmental use jumped to nearly 70% of all water flowing through the Delta while agriculture irrigated fewer acres with much less water, urban dwellers watched their toilet flushes and browned their lawns, and everyone paid more for the water they used.
Everyone, of course, except the environment. The costs of its water are borne on the backs of ordinary citizens through their water bills and farmers paying for the maintenance and operation of the federal Central Valley Project, the State Water Project, and the Colorado River Aqueduct.
Those users paid more and got less water. Roughly 50–70% of the costs they suffered went to pay for water that the federal government and state used for the environment.
Take a look at your most recent water bill. Divide the total owed in half, and that is your share of the environmental uses. Take a moment longer to consider that there are nearly 39 million Californians, each contributing like you.
And that’s the truth.