While few were looking, California made it a lot easier for water hogs to cover up their excessive use.
A tiny provision tucked into a package of conservation laws allows groundwater pumpers to hide how much they are taking from the ground, the Center for Investigative Reporting (CIR) points out.
The laws are part of the state’s attempt to preserve groundwater, an essential resource for farmers in dry years.
Signed into law last year by Gov. Jerry Brown (D), the laws are designed to restrict the amount of groundwater that pumpers can draw so that
the water gets a chance to naturally replenish itself. But a small provision called a “confidentiality provision” means that the public will never see exactly how much these pumpers are taking from the ground.
Some advocates, who say the provision decreases the state’s accountability and could lead to abuse, are furious.
Yet many farmers and other landowners with access to groundwater were supportive of the provision and, according to CIR, may have helped quietly lobby for it to be included in the law. The bill’s authors said that the provision was a compromise designed to keep these constituents happy, CIR reports.
“In essence, this was a battle we didn’t think we could take on,” the bill’s author, California assemblyman Roger Dickinson (D) told CIR. “So we agreed to keep the confidentiality.”
The law keeps in place California’s fairly relaxed standards for transparency about water use. Many cities in the state do not disclose individual water use. As City Lab points out, some properties with long-time rights permits to draw water from streams and rivers are also not required to disclose how much water they are drawing and storing.
California’s groundwater supply has been severely strained in recent years. Since the drought began in 2012, some California growers have begun to use groundwater for almost half of their crop watering, a percentage that the LA Times notes is far above average. Unlike surface water, which is mostly melted snowpack, groundwater is drawn from aquifers and other naturally-occurring water sources underground. Groundwater can take much longer to replenish than surface water.
Lack of responsibility and transparency for excessive water users has angered some Californians, who have taken to social media to “drought-shame” their neighbours.
According to a recent study by the Public Policy Institute for California, 66% of Californians think their neighbours are using too much water. Many of them might be right: the average Palm Springs resident, for example, uses a whopping 201 gallons of water, more than twice the state average.
Some California cities are also engaging in public drought-shaming. The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power recently released the zip codes with the highest complaints of water abuse.
Some conservationists have argued that making personal water use data available to the public could help decrease personal water use. Over the historic 12-year drought in Australia, for example, Australians reduced their personal water use by 40%, partially due to a government campaign to use public water data to encourage citizens to conserve.
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