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Agricultural water agencies refine efficiency plans

Issue Date: July 10, 2019
By Christine Souza

Agricultural water suppliers must develop annual water budgets and drought plans that meet requirements of recently enacted legislation, and are meeting with state officials to comply with the updated law—a process that could ultimately affect water costs for California farmers and ranchers.

California Farm Bureau Federation Director of Water Resources Danny Merkley said the process stems from 2009 law, and updates passed last year, which require the state Department of Water Resources to consult with agricultural stakeholders to quantify water-use efficiency.

Merkley said the process of updating Agricultural Water Management Plans has evolved since the multiyear drought that began in 2014. Agricultural water suppliers—those providing water to 25,000 or more irrigated acres—are required to update existing AWMPs by responding to changes to the state Water Code based on the 2018 legislation.

"After Gov. Brown asked water agencies to develop a framework for conservation following the 2014 drought, the Senate and Assembly further refined that by passing Assembly Bill 1668 and Senate Bill 606 last year. The bills instructed DWR to refine the water management plan," Merkley said.

Merkley, who represents CFBF on the agricultural stakeholder committee and technical subcommittee for the process, said Farm Bureau "has advocated for a realistic and practical methodology" during the updates.

Adam Borchard, a regulatory advocate for the Association of California Water Agencies, said the 2018 bills represented "a continuation of increasing state interest, monitoring and reporting" on agricultural water use that intensified during the drought.

At a DWR workshop in late June attended by agricultural water suppliers, Senior Environmental Scientist Marty Berbach and Environmental Scientist Sabrina Cook of DWR discussed the new AWMP guidelines, answered questions and requested feedback.

"We started the (AWMP) guidebook in 2012; we updated it in 2015, and so we're updating it again based on the Water Code changes from last year," Berbach said, adding that the department seeks "an easy transition" through an online process for districts to submit farm-gate delivery reports.

He said DWR hopes to have a draft 2020 guidebook for Agricultural Water Management Plan updates prepared by the end of the year and publicly available by April 1 next year—one year before the deadline for AWMP adoption.

"You have to actually adopt your plan by April 1, 2021, and submit it within 30 days," Berbach said, noting that U.S. Bureau of Reclamation contractors may submit water conservation plans deemed sufficient by the bureau.

During the meeting, DWR staff discussed details of the new AWMP requirements, including specifics on drought plans, water budgets, water-use efficiency calculations, water management objectives and other details.

Agricultural water suppliers must develop an annual water budget that quantifies inflow and outflow; identify water management objectives and actions to reduce water loss; quantify efficiency of agricultural water use using one of four methods; and include a drought plan that contains resilience planning and drought response.

The law allows DWR to impose fines if information is not submitted by the deadline.

Anjanette Shadley of Western Canal Water District in Butte County, who attended the meeting, complimented DWR for "always striving to incorporate input from stakeholders and making a real effort to find practical solutions from on-the-ground operations."

"Too often, the Legislature is passing laws and making new mandates based on unrealistic or preconceived ideas of water management or farming operations, then it becomes DWR's Water Use Efficiency Branch's responsibility to answer to compliance and progress made on these new laws and regulations," Shadley said. "My criticism is the Legislature gives us hoops to jump through and before we even get out of the chute, they give us five more. None of this is inexpensive and it takes a lot of man-hours to complete."

Another challenge to the process, she said, is that water agencies have different systems, capacities and operations that cannot be managed homogeneously.

Other water suppliers present at the meeting included representatives from Modesto Irrigation District and Turlock Irrigation District, and almost 50 people participated via video conference.

MID spokeswoman Melissa Williams said its water operations team is involved in the agricultural stakeholder committee and has been taking part in the AWMP process for several years, adding, "MID will continue to work with DWR and help shape the process along with TID and other ag water users."

(Christine Souza is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.

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