Prestigious California water law professors, a word, please?

A database?  You are aware of the difficulties the State Board is having using our current water rights structure to manage this drought, and your first prescription is a real good database?  You have taken a careful look at the existing database and noticed that it sucks balls.  So you propose a good water rights database instead.

I have several objections, which I list below from least indignant to most indignant:

1.  eWRIMS is the good new database.  There is no day of the week where I will call eWRIMS complete or usable, but the people that would make your good new database just did that, less than ten years ago. They came up with eWRIMS.  What factors do you think would be different between when they made eWRIMS and their new attempt now?  Unless your proposal includes new money to hire people with real database skills, you’ll get the same thing.  All the scanned important information that you think is missing from eWRIMS will be missing from the next database unless you are suggesting spending real money to get it digitized.

2.  Oh god, the State building a database?  When has that ever gone well?  There have been so many failed efforts in so many fields.  I defend bureaucrats on all sorts of things, but technology is not something the State does well.

Whatever, fine.  Decent money could overcome those things.  I have more serious objections.

3.  How would this excellent, smooth, complete new database by this January help manage the drought?  Don’t tell me “well, we can’t query important things now” or “you can’t manage what you don’t measure.”  Don’t tell me vague clichés about how information management is the first step.  Tell me exactly how the improved database would help manage the drought.  Because of the improved database, what would be different?  It is slow for people enforcing curtailments to sort through eWRIMS and get what they need to drive out to the field and enforce the curtailment, but they do it now.  How would the good database help?  The good database would help build a procedural record so that the State Board can hold better hearings before they issue more precise curtailments?  More precision on the paper end of water rights wouldn’t be equaled by more precision in the field, when you can’t tell whether a field is being irrigated by an appropriative right or the riparian right held for the same diversion point, and besides, is that project water or tailwater and we don’t know.  What, exactly, with real detail about the actual process, would the improved database provide that we don’t have now (albeit anachronistically slowly), that can be turned into actual drought management activities?  I don’t see anything that answers that question in your proposal.  What queries do you want to be able to do, for what management or enforcement purpose?  We should know that before spending time and money on digitizing a whole lot of paper.

4.  The problem with using our water rights structure to manage the drought isn’t that it takes a painful, unnecessary and anachronistic day to look up the paper records.  The problem is that many, maybe most water users do not believe that the State Board can legitimately enforce water rights.  Or they think they’ll never get caught.  Not just the senior, big water users, who sued when the State Board tried, revealing the problem that following due process for enforcing rights may take so long that it cannot be done within the diversion season.  Not just them.  When the State Board told all appropriative rights holders to confirm that they had curtailed their diversions after getting a notice, less than a third even answered.

Data show less than a third of the farmers, water districts and communities responded to the broadest conservation order for those with nearly ironclad water rights by the State Water Resources Control Board.

They wouldn’t even mail back a form saying, ‘sure, I’ve already done that. The stream was dried up anyway.’  If we get the database up to date and make it nice to use and growers don’t know their precise diversions and won’t send in the information, what good current information would go in the good database?

5.  Our water rights structure is showing itself to be unworkable.  Maybe that’s why we had to go through this process this year: to show that we can’t use it to handle an increasingly variable climate.  Climate change will only make that more true.  The last thing we should do is pour more money into that money pit.  We do not make an expensive new database now, only to scrap it when we face the inevitable and reform water rights.  (Two more years, if we are on the same timeline as Australia.)

I totally agree: eWRIMS is not good.  But bad eWRIMS isn’t the central problem we face.  The proposal to improve it doesn’t spell out what management problem fixing it would solve (besides the problem that eWRIMS is demonstrably crappy). Fixing it is a diversion from the real problems with our water rights structure.

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