Plugging the Water Drain

In 1983 the Legislature passed the California Urban Water Management Planning Act requiring municipal water districts to undertake conservation programs. But the Legislature balked at similar legislation to make farmers do the same thing. Farmers often boast that they were the original conservationists. Paying for water is a cost of their business. Who would stand by and watch money literally running down the drain?

They bristle at suggestions from many quarters that they are wholesale wasters of water and do not want anyone telling them how to farm, such as by requiring the use of drip-irrigation systems. Still, agriculture accounts for 84% of water use in California--nearly 36 million acre-feet a year. Even a small saving on such a broad scale could result in the conserving of considerable water.

After working carefully with the agriculture community and other interests this year, Assemblyman Phillip Isenberg (D-Sacramento) has won passage of his AB 1658, the Agricultural Water Management Planning Act. The measure now is before Gov. George Deukmejian, and deserves his signature. Isenberg's office gives considerable credit to the governor's water resources chief, David Kennedy, for helping win passage.

One concession that Isenberg made to the farming community was to exempt small irrigation districts from the law. Thus, the conservation plans are required only of agencies that deliver 50,000 acre-feet or more a year to their farming members. But those districts account for more than three-fourths of the irrigation water consumed in California. Isenberg says that the planning effort could lead to the saving of as much water as would be produced by a number of proposed water development projects, at relatively little cost and no harm to the environment.

There is no guarantee that all the water saved can be transferred to areas where additional water supplies are needed. An argument can be made for stiffer water conservation requirements on both farmers and urban users. But Isenberg's measure is an important first step, and would help demonstrate the benefits to be derived from even modest conservation efforts.

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