Secrecy in Water Data
Bill targets secrecy in California water data
Farms and golf courses rank among the biggest water users in the Coachella Valley, but detailed information about how much water each of those businesses use is kept secret by the area’s largest water agency.
That would change under a bill now before the California Legislature. The bill would clarify previous legislation by specifying that while residential customers’ data may be kept confidential, the public is entitled to information about how much water and energy is used by businesses and institutions.
“People have a right to know who’s using what, and especially with a commodity like water,” said Assembly member Mark Stone, a Democrat who represents the Monterey Bay area.
The bill, AB 1520, was introduced last year in the Assembly Judiciary Committee, which Stone chairs, and was approved last week by the Senate Judiciary Committee. It will go next before the Senate Appropriations Committee.
One of the organizations backing the bill is the First Amendment Coalition, which in 2014 sued the Coachella Valley Water District and the Desert Water Agency after they stopped releasing detailed information about groundwater pumping by large customers such as farms, golf courses, housing developments and resorts.
DWA later settled the case and resumed disclosing pumping data for businesses and organizations. CVWD, however, won the case in Riverside County Superior Court, with the judge backing its argument that the district didn’t need to disclose the data.
“Secrecy should never be the norm when it comes to government unless there’s some special justification for secrecy,” said Peter Scheer, executive director of the San Rafael-based First Amendment Coalition. “This bill would return California to a status quo of public access and transparency.”
Scheer said it’s crucial for the public to have access to detailed information to spot patterns in water use over time, and to assess whether government agencies are managing water supplies effectively.
“It’s very, very hard for the public to know whether agencies are doing what they need to do without access to this data,” Scheer said.
Managers of the Coachella Valley Water District have said they believe all of their customers are entitled to privacy, whether they are individuals or businesses. Heather Engel, CVWD’s director of communication and conservation, said the district hasn’t taken a position on the legislation.
Until 2013, the water district included data in annual reports on the amounts of groundwater pumped annually by more than 160 entities, ranging from farms and golf courses to resorts with acres of grass and artificial lakes.
CVWD stopped releasing that information in 2014 after The Desert Sun published the names of some of the area’s biggest water users. CVWD also has denied requests for the data.
The bill is cosponsored by the California Newspaper Publishers Association and backed by other organizations such as the Natural Resources Defense Council and Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability.
The legislation faces strong opposition from a long list of business and agricultural groups, as well as the Association of California Water Agencies, the California Manufacturers and Technology Association, and the California Municipal Utilities Association.
Paul Wenger, president of the California Farm Bureau Federation, objected to the legislation for various reasons. For one thing, he said, the amounts of water used in agriculture vary greatly from year to year depending on the weather and the crops selected.
“What are you going to do with the information? At the beginning it seems somewhat innocuous. And then later on you find out that somebody’s taking that information, misinterpreting it or reinterpreting it and it creates a lot of problems. So that’s why we’re opposed to it,” said Wenger, who farms crops including almonds, walnuts, pumpkins and corn in Modesto.
“When they pull this kind of information together, it’s usually the precursor to restricting you to a set amount of water usage,” Wenger said. “They’re going to say, ‘Well, historically you’ve used X-amount of water. That’s what you’re going to be entitled to going forward.’ That doesn’t work for agriculture.”
Farms in the Central Valley have been pumping groundwater heavily during California’s five-year drought to make up for the lack of surface water. In many areas, water tables have fallen to record lows.
California adopted historic legislation in 2014 to move toward managing the state’s aquifers, many of which are declining due to excessive pumping. Another bill before the Legislature this year would clamp down further by prohibiting the drilling of most new wells in places where aquifers are in critical overdraft.