Water Unaccountability in the Age of Drought

Friday, April 17, 2015

As California stumbles through its fourth year of drought, seeking to craft new water policies for a state that is being transformed overnight, it is having a tough time picking future winners and losers because the present-day winners are largely unknown.

Katharine Mieszkowski and Lance Williams at The Center for Investigative Reporting put a lot of the blame on a 1997 law pushed by wealthy folks in the Silicon Valley who didn’t want the California Public Records Act to expose their utility usage data.

So, when Governor Jerry Brown ordered 25% mandatory reductions in urban areas on April Fools Day, the state and local authorities prepared to make their cuts with a meat ax. More than 400 local water agencies have a year to implement water reductions of between 10% and 35% or face huge fines.

Complaints over the rationing are already pouring in.

Lawmakers amended the Public Records Act eight years after actress Rebecca Schaeffer was killed by a stalker who accessed her records at the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV), earning an exclusion for the agency. The public was outraged over the dangerous lack of personal privacy.

The 1997 change to the Act also came six years after the Los Angeles Times ran a story identifying the millionaire publisher of the San Diego Tribune, Helen Copley, as using 10,203 gallons of water a day at her estate.

The law was extended to protect private utilities like Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) and public water districts. Prying information out of them is a struggle at best; futile at worst. The First Amendment Coalition sued the Desert Water Agency in Palm Springs last August and successfully negotiated the release of information in October on how much water its corporate customers were pumping from the local aquifer.

But the Coachella Valley Water District was also a party to that lawsuit. They fought on and last month a Riverside County Superior Court judge agreed with their argument that “it is important to protect private customer data, whether that customer is a homeowner, a business or a private pumper.”   

Coalition Executive Director Peter Scheer was not impressed by the judicial reasoning. “The notion a public records act is supposed to protect the privacy of large corporate customers, especially during a drought, is just nuts,” he told the Palm Springs Desert Sun.

While residential Californians, who consume less than 10% of the state’s water, prepare to watch their “nice little green grass” turn beige in a miasma of despair and uncertainty, the agricultural sector that slurps down 80% of the water is operating under an even thicker veil of secrecy and unaccountability.

The governor did not announce any specific cuts for growers, mentioning in passing that they had already suffered reductions in some of their water sources. Their world is governed by an arcane, century-old system of unassailable senior and junior water rights and publicly unaccountable pumping and diversion.

As federal water dries up and other sources diminish, growers have increasingly turned to groundwater, overpumping aquifers with little accountability even as oil companies pollute them with injection wells.

California state government has only now begun to take a meaningful accounting of water, inarguably the most important resource in the state for the past 200 years and the focal point of its development. For all the attention paid to the politics, economic bounty and fragility of water, it was, at the same time, ignored in fundamental ways.

And still is.

–Ken Broder


To Learn More:

To Shield Tech Executives, California’s Biggest Water Users Are Secret (by Katharine Mieszkowski and Lance Williams, The Center for Investigative Reporting)

California Faces Fight over Historic Water Rationing Plans (by Bettina Boxall and Matt Stevens, Los Angeles Times)

Judge: CVWD Doesn’t Need to ID Heavy Water Users (by Colin Atagi, Palm Springs Desert Sun)

Here's the Real Problem With Almonds (by Tom Philpott and Julia Lurie, Mother Jones)

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