New research shows agriculture's actual water use.
California Bountiful Foundation's research shows percentage of captured water in California. (Graphic: Amrith Gunasekara/California Bountiful Foundation)

The environmental sector receives highest fluctuation of state water.

Natalie Willis, Reporter, Valley Ag Voice

New scientific research from the California Bountiful Foundation shows that California’s agriculture sector utilizes 15% of the state’s water. This figure starkly contrasts previous claims by the Public Policy Institute of California, which cited 80% of the state’s water use to agriculture operations. According to the head of research at CBF, Dr. Amrith Gunasekara, current water usage statistics put out by policymakers are vastly exaggerated.

“What the data shows is that there’s a captured portion and an uncaptured portion, and the 80% comes from the captured portion,” Gunasekara said. “But that’s essentially taken out of context because they’re not taking into account the full amount of water that comes into the state and who uses what.”

The state receives approximately 200 million acre-feet of captured water annually, dependent on a wet or drought year. But the captured water that is stowed behind reservoirs and is released throughout the year is always distributed the same way, whereas uncaptured runoff goes directly into the environment, Gunasekara explained.

Gunasekara’s research method used existing data from the PPIC and Department of Water Resources as well as California’s State Water Plan, which is a mass analysis of water usage in the state. Colleagues at the University of California, Merced cross-checked Gunasekara’s findings.

The research found a statistical discrepancy in omitting data from uncaptured water. Gunasekara explained that uncaptured water, which courses out during high flows in the winter, is beneficial primarily to the environment as it receives roughly 80% of the state’s uncaptured and captured water. The issue with this, he explained, is that policymakers are not accounting for uncaptured water as a part of the environmental share.

Gunasekara states two distribution shares never change—agriculture and the urban sector. Agriculture’s water share is always about 30 million acre-feet—in a wet year, that is about 12%, but in a drier year, it could be as high as 30%, he explained. Urban receives roughly 10% of the state’s water, with the San Francisco Bay and South Coast regions accounting for most urban water usage, according to the PPIC Water Policy Center.

Gunasekara and his team began drafting a one-page policy brief after making their research public in order to guide policymakers.

“We just want to set the record straight,” Gunasekara said. “Agriculture has been under attack from all these newspapers, especially in the drought, and it’s wrong to portray agriculture like this—especially when we use it to live off of.”


While the current wet year has provided Central Valley agriculture some respite, the state’s water challenges are far from over. High amounts of snow and rainfall have filled the Central Valley’s reservoirs, but the lack of capable water storage capacities caused the state to activate the “intertie” relief valve to carry excess water at 500 cubic feet per second to the California Aqueduct, officially becoming property of the State Water Project.

“Once the Kern River Water enters the California Aqueduct through the Kern River Intertie, the [Department of Water Resources] determines where it will be used within the state system,” Mark Mulkay, Kern River Watermaster, said in an email.

Mulkay explained that the intertie will remain open until the state allows the Kern River interests to reduce outflow from Lake Isabella to below 7,000 cubic feet per second. However, there is no set time for the event.

In an interview with NPR, hydrogeologist and professor at UC Santa Cruz, Andrew Fisher explained that a majority of the uncaptured portion of water will flow into the ocean.

“Some of it can be captured for later, but the short answer is it falls so quickly that we lack the ability to take that water and set it aside quickly enough in a place where we can store it for later,” Fisher said. “The primary forms of storage for water in California are the snowpack, [which] typically accumulates annually, and then reservoirs behind dams, and then groundwater aquifers.”

Current efforts by the California government to recharge and store groundwater have cited heavy agricultural pumping as the reason for its depletion. In an executive order released in Feb. Governor Gavin Newsom approved a plan to capture high flows from extreme storms to store underground, and more than 600,000 acre-feet will be rerouted to wildlife refuges along the San Joaquin River, further increasing the environmental water share.

In April, the House Committee on Natural Resources joined the Subcommittee on Water, Wildlife and Fisheries as well as other members of Congress on a field tour in Fresno to assess California’s water storage capabilities. Their findings, conclusively, were that the state’s inadequate water storage will not be sustainable through the next drought cycle.

After the tour, members reconvened for a legislative field hearing in Tulare County to discuss two bills addressing California’s water issues—the WATER for California Act represented by Republican Congressman David Valadao and the FISH Act represented by Republican Congressman Ken Calvert.

The WATER for California Act contains “common sense solutions” to increase water storage capacity as well as to streamline federal processes involved while the FISH Act provides effective management for certain fish species to eliminate unnecessary, duplicative regulation.

“If we don’t take action to fix the complex and contradictory laws and regulations that control how much we’re able to pump, and what storage projects we’re able to move forward, our ability to feed the nation will be in jeopardy,” Valadao said at the hearing.

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