Sun, Dec 08, 2019 - Page 16 News List

Can water shares help to save California aquifers?

By Carey L. Biron  /  Thomson Reuters Foundation, WASHINGTON

California is by far the US’ most populous state, as well as its largest agricultural producer. Increasingly, it is also one of the country’s most parched places.

However, Edgar Terry, a fourth-generation farmer in Ventura County, just outside of Los Angeles, thinks that he has a key to reversing worsening water stress: establishing tradeable rights to shares of fast-depleting groundwater aquifers.

Doing so would turn aquifer water into a more valuable asset that could be traded on a market, similar to “cap-and-trade” systems that have been set up to regulate air pollution, conserve fisheries and manage other common resources.

Such a system would put a price on what has essentially been a free resource and create a powerful incentive to use it more sparingly, backers have said.

“If you can buy and sell stocks, why not trade water? It’s an asset, we can’t live without it and I can’t grow without it,” Terry told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by telephone. “When you assign something a value, you tend to take care of it much more.”

A local initiative spurred by Terry’s idea — the Fox Canyon groundwater market — is to become the first such system created under landmark state water legislation passed in 2014. It is set to start formally trading next month.

At first the market would be open only to farmers within a single groundwater basin, but eventually it could extend to towns and cities and throughout the three areas that drain into the Fox Canyon aquifer.

Under the market, participants would receive long-term shares to draw from the aquifer based on previous pumping needs and monitored by cutting-edge meters that gauge their use in almost real time.

US water regulations have long focused almost exclusively on surface water — rivers, streams and lakes — rather than groundwater.

Out of view, groundwater has tended to flow under the public radar as well, water experts said.

However, as pressures on water supplies from climate change and rapid urbanization grow, along with data showing that groundwater aquifers are quickly being depleted across the globe, that has begun to change.

The Fox Canyon project is the tip of a burgeoning public discussion in California, after the state in 2014 mandated that water districts be sustainable by 2040.

Initial plans to ensure that sustainability are due by next month.

Previously, the state was one of the most unregulated in the parched US west on groundwater, University of Nebraska associate professor of agricultural economics Karina Schoengold said.

While water markets are just one potential strategy for conservation, they are receiving major interest across the state — and that in turn is drawing attention nationally, she said.

“It’s a big change that could really drive changes in how we think about managing groundwater,” Schoengold said.

Effective groundwater markets are complicated to set up and Schoengold estimated that fewer than 10 “true” systems exist in the US or abroad.

However, technological advances and other changes mean they are increasingly feasible and “are going to becoming really important in the future,” she said.

One primary obstacle remains skepticism of the fairness of such systems, particularly among agricultural producers keen not to allow outside control over their ability to grow a crop.

“We have to show that this is something that has benefits for the people who are using groundwater, and we’re not at that point everywhere,” she said.

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