(TNS) -- Even as California has marched out unprecedented water restrictions during the drought, the spigots at thousands of farms and ranches have gone largely unmonitored — a vestige of the state’s Gold Rush-era water policy.
On Tuesday, state water officials did away with this historical oversight. Acknowledging they can’t manage what they can’t measure, regulators in Sacramento passed rules to require holders of longtime water rights to track and report what they draw from rivers and creeks.
Unlike residential water customers in virtually every city in the state, 12,000 longtime water-rights holders — mostly farmers, ranchers and utilities — are governed by laws written when water was plentiful and still in many cases don’t have to report their usage regularly. That has made it difficult for the state to tell just how much water is being consumed and to stretch supplies efficiently during dry times.
“In a water system as large as California’s, the more information you have and the more timely you have it allows you to manage that system better,” said Tim Moran, spokesman for the State Water Resources Control Board.
However, state officials found that no change in century-old water practices comes easily.
“We do understand and appreciate the need to have more timely and accurate data, especially during times of drought,” Danny Merkley, director of water resources for the California Farm Bureau Federation, told water board members Tuesday. “However, we still believe you may have overestimated the feasibility of compliance here. It’s going to be very difficult for the thousands and thousands of (water) diverters.”
Merkley said measuring consumption would be a burden for many small farmers and ranchers. Metering technology isn’t cheap, he said, and running electricity for new equipment to remote locations will be a challenge.
One engineer told the board that his client on the North Coast had spent $15,000 buying and installing gauges.
Paul Marchini, 70, whose family has been farming wine grapes, alfalfa and wheat on Union Island in the delta since the 1940s, said he doesn’t see the point of purchasing new gadgets when he has been able to track his water usage with older equipment and estimates.
Marchini doesn’t yet know what the proposed regulation will require of him, but as a senior water-rights holder, he said, he doesn’t want to be weighed down. California landowners living along waterways have been able to pump freely since statehood in 1850, but Marchini having that ability doesn’t mean he’s rich.
“I don’t have an extra $10,000 to spend on something,” he said. “I have riparian rights. I should be able to get as much water as I need, to do what I need to do.”
The new state rules, most of which will begin to be phased in at the end of the year, require those who draw at least 10 acre-feet of water from a river or creek annually — the equivalent of what about 15 households use in a year — to install a meter. The type of meter and the measurement protocols vary with how much water a user draws.
The regulation eliminates a loophole that now allows water-rights holders to cite economic hardship and forgo metering, something 70 percent have historically done, according to state estimates.
The rules also require rights holders to report their usage more frequently — in many cases each year instead of every three years.
However, state officials dropped a proposal to compel the biggest users to post their water draws in real time on a public website.
The new regulation comes as the state water board, facing a possible fifth year of drought, considers new conservation mandates for cities and towns as well as potential cutbacks for the water-rights holders drawing from rivers and creeks.
While urban residents have faced mandatory reductions of up to 36 percent, holders of about 10,000 water rights — mostly in agricultural areas — had their supplies cut off last year because of the drought.
State regulators have not yet said whether water-rights holders will face cutbacks this year. But they say better accounting will allow them to tailor reductions more precisely and perhaps to limit them.
The reporting requirements are the result of legislation that Gov. Jerry Brown signed last year, to the applause of many fighting for more sustainable water policy.
“These regulations will help improve water planning and enhance decision-making,” said Rickey Russell, policy analyst with California Coastkeeper Alliance.
©2016 the San Francisco Chronicle Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.