Although recent storms may provide much needed relief for California farmers, the state’s water storage is drying up, researchers say. Using satellite data from NASA’s Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE) mission, researchers found that as of November, total water storage in the state’s two large river basins had declined to its lowest point in nearly a decade.

Total water storage includes all of the snow, surface water, soil moisture and groundwater, and an integrated measure of basin-wide water availability. The study involving the basins of the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers was led by Jay Famiglietti, a UC Irvine professor and director of the UC Center for Hydrologic Modeling (UCCHM).

The region studied encompasses the Central Valley, the most productive agriculture region in the country and California’s most drought-affected farming region. The area depends entirely on the surface and groundwater resources within the river basins to meet irrigation needs and to produce food for the nation.

The data show particularly steep water losses between November 2011 – the early phase of the current drought -- and November 2013. Famiglietti and his team estimate that the basins have lost 10 cubic kilometers of fresh water in each of the last two years -- equivalent to virtually all of California’s annual urban and household water use. “That’s the steepest decline in total water storage that we’ve seen in California since the GRACE mission was launched in 2002,” Famiglietti said.

Famiglietti, a professor of earth science with a side expertise in civil and environmental engineering, has been to Capitol Hill in Washington, delivering a simple message to both Republicans and Democrats: “Start thinking about disappearing groundwater.”

Groundwater storage and management is critical to water supply. Expanding underground storage can be much more cost effective than building new surface storage. Groundwater banking (storing it for later use) can both stretch available supplies and replace the storage lost by a shrinking Sierra Nevada snowpack. But legal uncertainties over storage rights and the ownership of stored water are impeding the development of groundwater banking outside adjudicated basins and special groundwater management districts.

Water marketing is an equitable way to accommodate changing demands for water, by compensating water rights holders for moving water from low-value uses. But the water market has stagnated. Cumbersome state procedures for environmental approvals, lack of groundwater basin management in many counties, local resistance to sales involving agricultural land fallowing, and new restrictions on exports from the Delta of the two rivers have all hindered water market development.

Another California constraint dates from the so-called Monterey Amendments, a 1994 deal between the State Water Project and several water contractors, including the Metropolitan Water District and private Paramount Farms. As the LA Times recently pointed out: “Paramount is owned by Roll Global, the corporate arm of Beverly Hills billionaires Stewart and Lynda Resnick, who are better known for Fiji Water and Pom Wonderful pomegranate juice. Paramount is also the largest grower and processor of almonds and pistachios in the world, partly because the Monterey deal gave it access to a permanent supply of water—necessary because nut trees can't survive water interruptions.”

That is when the Department of Water Resources first transferred a giant groundwater aquifer called the Kern Fan Element to the Kern County Water Agency. The Kern Water Bank is a 19,900 acre underground reservoir capable of storing a million acre feet of water complete with canals, pumps and conveyance to connect the water bank to the State Water Project aqueducts.

The purpose was to force Kern County to give up a fixed portion of its share of State Water Entitlement for purchase by Municipal users only; and secondly, to make it available “generally” to Kern water agency farmers to dampen future water cutbacks. The Kern County Water agency agreed to allocate the Kern Water Bank to farming water districts in Kern County and one in Kings County. The Kern County Water Agency signed a joint powers agreement – which allowed various Kern County Water Districts to exercise their common powers under the Kern Water Bank Authority.

Thus the Kern Water Bank Authority formed two water storage districts, two water districts, one special district and one private Company. Paramount Farming - through Paramount’s water company - owns 48.06 percent, the largest share of the Kern Water Bank. Through Dudley Ridge Water District, Paramount owns an additional 8.66 percent of the Kern Water Bank. This Dudley Ridge share prohibits the district from ever using the water bank except for the benefit of Paramount.

Some environmental groups say the Monterey Amendments turned over too much control over water allocations from the State Water Project to private interests and are suing to overturn the deal. In early March, Sacramento Superior Court Judge Timothy M. Frawley struck down the environmental review of the operation of the Kern Water Bank.

“We now have a chance to shine light on the murky operation of the Kern Water Bank, including its role in the destruction of the Bay Delta ecosystem and in fueling speculative real estate development and unsustainable agribusiness practices like growing nut trees in Kern County,” says Adam Keats, senior counsel for the Center for Biological Diversity, which is suing to overturn the deal. “They eliminated the state as manager of public resource.”


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