SJV Water Editor and CEO Lois Henry had heard from farmers in Kings County that water was leaving that heavily farmed region in large amounts, potentially for sales outside the county. What she found was that water is, in fact, leaving Kings County largely under transfers by the region’s two largest farming entities. But exactly how much, where it’s ending up and whether it’s being sold or used on crops is impossible to ascertain because of California’s opaque to nonexistent water tracking procedures.
The impact on smaller famers is not hard to discern, however. This water exodus is having a devastating impact on these farmers, many of whom have been in the industry for generations.
In collaboration with the Center for Collaborative Investigative Journalism (CCIJ), Lois spent three months picking through dozens of transfer records from the Department of Water Resources (DWR0, county water agencies, and water districts. But those only look at a tiny piece of the puzzle of the state’s water system. State records only give a small picture of water movement in California, despite the fact that all these “flavors” of water are moved, traded and sold in concert and must use public canals. They don’t include river water, which is governed by separate, often private entities. And groundwater, which isn’t accounted for at all.
Lois was able to quantify how much state water is leaving Kings County and that most of it is headed to farms in Kern County. Whether it’s being sold, to whom and for how much was not discernable as water districts claimed that information was “between landowners.”
Being able to track that movement will become ever more important as California endures more routine and longer periods of drought- a pattern that is anticipated to continue as climate change alters how water is captured and moved through the state. DWR Chief Karla Nemeth noted that what Lois found was significant and said her department will be altering its water transfer protocols to make them more transparent.