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Three Lessons on Water Accounting for California
Alvar Escriva-Bou, Henry McCann August 08, 2016

Californians are known to take pride in the state’s many exceptional characteristics. But in at least one important area, we’d be wise to learn a thing or two from our neighbors. Not only are the Golden State’s water management challenges shared by other western states, but many of these places use more advanced practices to understand how much water is available, who has claims to it, and how much is being used.

A new report by the PPIC Water Policy Center reviewed how California compares to other dry regions—11 other western states and Australia and Spain—in integrating water information into critical management functions. We found ample room for improving the state’s systems—especially for managing groundwater overdraft, defining environmental water needs, and stimulating water trading.

These three overarching lessons, drawn from our comparison study, have particular value for California:

  • Management of groundwater can be improved by adopting common standards for evaluating its availability and use. In most regions, including California, groundwater management is locally driven. Getting users to agree on long-term goals can be difficult when local agencies that share groundwater resources use different accounting methods to assess availability and use. Recognizing the need for better coordination, Australia developed accounting standards that ensure consistency across agencies. And Texas developed "authoritative” groundwater models that serve as an accepted standard for determining allocations and settling disputes, and are used as the default for local agencies. As a result, both places improved their cooperation and coordination over shared resources, and reduced costs. Establishing a set of standards could help California facilitate basin-wide planning as the state the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act.

  • Clearly defining environmental water needs makes decision-making easier for all water users. California still needs to consistently define the quantity, timing, and quality of water for environmental uses in most watersheds throughout the state. This will not only benefit the environment but also reduce uncertainty for other water users who rely on watershed resources. For instance, Washington is defining water budgets that clarify environmental needs for each sub-basin in the state. A pragmatic path for California is to develop watershed-based environmental water budgets that integrate local watershed goals such as ecosystem health and water supply objectives.

  • A well-functioning water market stands on three legs: clarity on water claims, certainty on water use, and strong systems to manage and share information. Water trading is a key tool for shifting water from less critical uses during times of scarcity. Trading opportunities in California are limited by a lack of information. Improving our understanding of how much water is used under each water right (and how much returns to streams and aquifers) is critical for determining the volumes of water that can be traded without harming other users. Idaho and Colorado have made great strides in this area. California would also benefit from more detailed, publicly disseminated information on volumes, prices, and locations of water trade agreements. The water market in Victoria, Australia, leads the way in providing timely and accessible information on water rights, allocations, and trading.

Investing in water accounting can stretch supplies during times of scarcity, as has been demonstrated in other dry regions. Making a commitment to comprehensive, authoritative, and user-oriented water accounting now, as other states and countries have already done, will help California become more resilient to the challenges posed by future droughts and climate change.

Learn more
Read the report Accounting for California’s Water (July 2016)
Visit the PPIC Water Policy Center

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