Pacific Institute Insights is the staff blog of the Pacific Institute, one of the world’s leading nonprofit research groups on sustainable and equitable management of natural resources. For more about what we do, click here.

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    Infographic: What to Expect from California’s Drought

    By Paula Luu, Communications Manager

    January 24, 2014

    While our weather-beaten friends in the Midwest and Northeast braced for near-record low temperatures and polar vortex snowstorms, Californians rang in the New Year with a rainless January.  2013 had gone down as the driest calendar year (since we began keeping record of rainfall 119 years ago), so it was no surprise when Gov. Jerry Brown officially declared a drought emergency on January 17. The governor’s official statement has changed the state’s political climate — drawing more public attention to the growing need for improved management and expanded climate policies. The impacts of water shortages are widespread, affecting everyone from consumers to farmers.

    Last week, Pacific Institute President Peter Gleick wrote about what Californians could expect from the drought. To build on that blog, I’ve created an infographic that further explains what California’s dry future could look like. You can share the infographic by linking to



    Pacific Institute Insights is the staff blog of the Pacific Institute, one of the world’s leading nonprofit research groups on sustainable and equitable management of natural resources. For more about what we do, click here. The views and opinions expressed in these blogs are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect an official policy or position of the Pacific Institute.

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    What Californians Can Expect from the Drought

    By Peter Gleick, President

    January 16, 2014

    California has a “Mediterranean” climate, which means that each year it has a concentrated rainy season, followed by a long temperate and dry period. California’s rainy season typically runs from early October to late March, with very little precipitation outside of these months. (Figure 1 shows the average monthly rainfall for California.) It is now early 2014 and the rains have not come, for the third year in a row. While the definition of “drought” varies from place to place, it is safe to say that California is currently suffering from a severe – and by some measures, unprecedented — drought.

    Figure 1: Monthly average precipitation showing the seasonality of precipitation in different parts of California, from the iconic California Water Atlas.

    It is not too late for some big storms off the Pacific Ocean to bring relief. But the odds are against it and current meteorological conditions are not encouraging. If the rest of the winter months are dry, or even of average wetness, the state will have much less water than normal, and much less than water users want – from cities to farms to our natural ecosystems.

    We’ve had dry periods before – they are a recurring feature of our variable climate. The difficulty, expense, and pain of droughts, however, depend on two things: how severe they are and how we react. The Pacific Institute has spent many years studying the effects of droughts in California and has published several analyses of past impacts and responses (here and here).

    Based on past experience, here is (part of) what Californians can expect this year if it remains as dry as it is now. …»

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  • The Waghad System: Institutions, the Role of Mobile Technology, and Wise Water Use

     by Veena Srinivasan, Research Affiliate
    August 26, 2011 

    Waghad Institutions
    The Waghad system has well developed water institutions that have contributed to it being such a major success story. One of the hardest problems to tackle in all water management is enforcement of rules. Many villages in India have registered WUAs as per various PIM state laws. However, enforcement – making sure the water is allocated equitably and no one tries to cheat – remains a thorny issue.
    Based on these conversations at Ozar and Mohadi villages, I found several recurring themes about how water was being managed.

    1. Consensus on water allocation rules
    2. Establishment of trust
    3. Robust monitoring and enforcement arrangements
    4. Theft deterrence mechanisms
    5. De-politicized, fair voting process
    6. Sound financial management

    Consensus on Water Allocation Rules:
    Over a period of 10 years, the project developed a set of rules that work for everyone. There appear to be two core ideas – prioritization of domestic water schemes and proportional cuts to all farmers in water-scarce years except smallholders having an acre or less of land.
    Every October, at the end of the monsoon, an Annual Irrigation Scheduling meeting is held. Farmers submit their request for water for the next year to their WUA. At the annual meeting, all requests are tallied and the total water available for irrigation for the next year for each of the two growing seasons (Rabi or winter and Garmi or summer) is determined. Then the amount of water available to each farm is estimated and an irrigation schedule is drawn up
    The Waghad dam has an annual average availability of 2550 Mcft. Of this about 15% is lost in evaporation. 40% of the remaining water is allocated to a downstream dam – the Palkhet dam. About 200 Mcft is of the remaining water is allocated to serve a drinking water scheme in the village of Dindhori. The remaining 1060 McFT or so is available for allocation for irrigation.

    Water is allocated in proportion to the water available in the dam. However the dam is clearly an upstream dam – in the last 25 years, the 100% dam level has been missed only 4 times. In water scarce years, the first priority is allocations to Gram Panchayat Drinking water schemes. Smallholders (landholding<=0.5 Ha) are not cutback. Larger holdings are cut back in proportion to the total water available.

    Establishment of Trust, Trust, Trust
    As Mr. Bharat Kawale pointed out this was absolutely the hardest and most time consuming component of the process. The local NGO and WUAs worked very hard for over 15 years to gradually build trust between the different actors. This is something that simply cannot be achieved with a short-term project mind-set. Trust only builds when each of the actors has had a chance to test whether the other actors will each live up to their promises under different and difficult circumstances.

    In 1991, the farmers held the Irrigation Department in contempt – corrupt opportunists out to exploit the farmers. The Irrigation Department personnel too had little respect for the “uneducated farmers”. Today both sides appear to respect the other and understand the strengths. Importantly, the improvement and benefit to each is obvious. On one hand Irrigation Department revenues have gone up ten-fold and the canal system is being maintained with little effort on the part of Irrigation Department. On the other, farmers at both the head and tail ends of the canal feel confident the water they paid for will actually be delivered.

    Although the tail-end villages were the first to form the WUAs as they were clearly suffering under status quo, when the head reaches saw the benefits from the creation of the WUAs they too decided to form one. Initially each of the WUAs interacted with the Irrigation Department separately. In 2003, the WUAs jointly decided to form a Project Level Association (PLA) to co-ordinate between the WUAs and the Irrigation Department. The Irrigation Department was initially very skeptical of this. They worried that if they allowed farmers any access to the dam – the farmers would no longer pay the Irrigation Department for water. They agreed to allow the PLA to be created only if a bank guarantee of Rs 5 lakhs (Rs 500,000) was given to the Irrigation Department by the WUAs constituting the PLA. The WUAs agreed to give a bank guarantee and the PLA was formed. Once the Irrigation Department realized that the farmers were continuing to pay dues and the department revenues were even increasing, they began to support the whole scheme. Now PLAs are a mandatory feature in the Maharshtra Farmer Management Act of 2005. PLAs across the state are no longer required to provide a bank guarantee.

    However, as Mr. Kulkarni and others point out the PLAs are the easiest part of the whole institutional system. The 24 WUAs in the Waghad Project involved building trust with 15,000 farmers. In contrast, forming the PLAs merely involved getting representatives from each of the 24 WUAs in a room. They pointed out that WUAs are the foundational pillars of PIM. Creating  a PLA first as some “top-down” PIM efforts have done have failed because they lack the most fundamental element of PIM – which is trust between the command area farmers.

    Monitoring Devices and Enforcement Rules
    The cornerstone of the robust water institution in Waghad is the tail-to-head ordering of delivery. Water delivery begins at the tail end and then as each outlet upstream is successfully opened, water flow downstream is automatically cut off. The calculations of the water quantity and the number of hours each outlet will remain open and schedule is decided right at the end of the monsoon in October. Once this was agreed to all tail-end farmers were confident that their needs would be met and had an incentive to participate and pay dues.
    Most importantly this system is self-enforcing. Each farmer has an incentive to show-up and open the outlet at the appointed time even if it is in the middle of the night. The tail-to-head ordering only requires the farmer who is going to get water to show up and open his own gate and put some stones in the canal to stop flow downstream.  Since water naturally follows gravity no action is required on the part of the tail-enders – the farmer who is going to be shut-off does not need to be present. This is in direct contrast to a head-to-tail ordering system where the tail-ender is at the mercy of the head-ender shutting his outlet. The head-ender has no particular incentive to do this if water is scarce.


    Gate controlling farm level outlet. It can be locked in theory but in Ozar this had not been found necessary.

    In the minor canal, flow measurement devices between the major and minor canals and the minor canals and farm outlets. Each minor canal is under the control of a WUA. When opening minor canal outlet, the PLA and WUA Canal Inspector must both be present and sign off on each other’s registers. When opening a farm outlet, the WLA Canal Inspector and farmer must both be present and sign off on each other’s registers.
    Two types of monitoring devices were in use. Both perform essentially the same function. One is calibrated to be measured in cusecs and the other in cm height of water flowing in the canal – which must be converted into cusecs using a conversion chart.



    Figures above show the two types of flow measurement devices. The device on the left is calibrated to be in cusecs. The device on the right measures height of water flow in inches and must be converted to cusecs using a chart.

    Information management and deterrence of cheating
    Better information management and deterrence of cheating forms an important component of the institutional structure of Waghad. Two mechanisms have been used – 1) physical removal of water rerouting pipes and regular monitoring,  2) social pressure and 4) careful thought to staffing.
    Mr. Govardhan Kulkarni mentioned the use of “social pressure” as an important enforcement tool. (He actually used the term social pressure, even though the rest of our conversation was conducted in Hindi). Although outright theft of water is fairly rare now, when it used to occur twenty years ago, social pressure played a major role in enforcing allocation rules. According to two different WUA members, this worked as follows: if a farmer broke an outlet and “stole” water one night, the whole WUA would show up at his home for tea the next morning. No reference would be made to the actual theft – but by the next day everyone would know that so-and so was paid a morning visit. The self-knowledge of theft and the fact that they were “caught” was enough to shame farmers into compliance.

    Once the WUA was monitored by a local farmer, the thefts became quite easy to detect just by looking at the flow data. This was not the situation before the formation of the WUA, when each farmer dealt directly with the Irrigation Department. The farmers would simply bribe the Irrigation Department official secure in the knowledge that they had gotten away with the theft. The farmers did not control the data and had no way of knowing who received how much water.

    Detection and removal of theft infrastructure
    This social pressure went hand in hand with the physical removal of an entire network of underground pipes that allowed water from the canal area to be pumped to fields outside the command area – sometimes as much as 6 km away.  Regular checks pose a sufficient deterrence to ensure that farmers will not bother to make the considerable investment in building sophisticated underground piped networks to route the water out of the command area in a bid to steal water.

    Role of Mobile Information Technology in Waghad

    waghad_mobile_phoneThe coordinating role of mobile phones in smoothening the functions of WUAs is striking. It is clear that widespread use of cell phones has greatly improved co-ordination among the WUAs and PLA. In one instance, mentioned by the PLA member, it had begun to rain heavily in a command area, just as the outlet to the minor was about to be opened upstream. The WUA was able to immediately call and halt the opening of the gate – leading to the farmers saving money as well as allowing the water to remain in the dam for future use.

    Innovative uses of mobile phone technology:
    A mobile phone application developed by the WUA member Mr Kulkarni uses an existing application called “Convertor” widely available in all Nokia phones to translate how to convert the storage levels in the Waghad dam to cusec-days at the field outlet level. He hopes to disseminate this widely for use by all other WUAs at the next October meeting. He has created a poster explaining this mobile application and a simple pamphlet.
    A second use of mobile technology by Mr. Kulkarni was a spreadsheet maintaining all field-level readings at the minor canal and field outlet canals. His ultimate ambition is to have the canal inspector directly broadcast the reading to all WUA members and automatically update the data spreadsheet.

    SMS service for market and climate prices
    Several farmers confirmed using crop forecasting and commodity price information which is delivered to them as a daily SMS. The farmers pay Rs 250/month for weather information (which they found to be 80% accurate!) and prices of 3 crops in nearby markets.

    Wise use of water

    Another key element component of the Waghad system is the wise use of water. The Waghad system is characterized by three remarkable features: low water intensive crops, widespread drip irrigation and conjunctive use of water. Wastewater reuse is apparently prevalent in one or two places and was described to me but it is rare I did not personally get a chance to visit the sites.

    1. Low-water intensive, cash crops (vegetables)
    When the dam was first put in, everyone’s first inclination was to grow sugarcane – As one farmer said – “we were so excited we rushed to sow sugarcane the first two years”. Farmers soon realized there was not enough water to go around and everyone’s crop failed. Since then the main focus has been on relatively fruits and vegetables and more recently flowers for export.

    2. High penetration of drip irrigation
    The most remarkable aspect of the system is the widespread use of drip irrigation which was apparent on almost every farm. As Mr. Kulkarni pointed out, without drip the two rotations of water flood irrigation would never be sufficient.  Drip irrigated vegetables were ubiquitous in every farm I visited.


    Drip Irrigated plant covered with plastic to reduce evaporative losses.

    3.Conjuctive Use

    The second characteristic of agricultural water use in Waghad, is the widespread conjunctive use of ground and surface water. Perennial crops like grapes and vegetables like tomatoes need highly reliable levels of water. In the Waghad project, waiting for the next delivery is not always feasible. Particularly in areas lacking black cotton soil which can retain moisture for a long time, farmers must supplement water with groundwater from their wells. This is addressed by allowing farmers to supplement water from open wells to cover the period between water deliveries.

    The Ozar area has instituted a ban on bore wells. Only open wells are allowed. The one problem with groundwater use was that initially the farmers were unwilling to “pay” for groundwater. Groundwater is considered the sole right of the land owner under Indian law. A major achievement of the project was the gaining farmer recognition of the interconnectivity of surface and groundwater. Recognizing that they were unable to have sufficient groundwater when the canal linings began to be lined, the farmers realized that the groundwater they were using was coming from canal recharge.  Eventually the farmers agreed to pay for groundwater
    Conjunctive use has become so much a part of the system that farmers now even officially set aside a portion of their canal delivery to be specifically directed for groundwater recharge.

    This means they pay for surface water and then allow it to percolate into the aquifer. This is achieved by placing sand bags in the field outlet canal to slow down the flow of water or directing the water into a recharge pond. Today an estimated 50% of the water in the Waghad project area is sourced via groundwater. Groundwater levels have remained relatively stable and even risen slightly.

    There was one rather unusual form of conjuctive use I encountered. One farmer recognizing that groundwater levels were dropping in summer, decided to construct a lined farm pond to ensure that he had enough water to irrigate his summer vegetables when groundwater levels drop in the dry season. The farm pond would be filled by pumping groundwater into the surface water pond in the wet season.


    Farm pond storing pumped groundwater for use in the dry season

    However, the farmer said he was not actually making much money from this rather unusual conversion of a public good into a private good. The main reason he cited for the poor profitability was that he had given up growing grapes because he was unable to get affordable farm labor because of the growth in service sector and manufacturing jobs in nearby Nasik. Without grapes, he no longer needed the same level of “insurance” and could no longer justify a lined farm pond.

    4. Wastewater Reuse
    Reuse of domestic sewage is quite rare but where practiced is mainly for percolation and recharge. The wastewater is directed to a communal pond lined with gravel and stones and allowed to stand. The coarser material gets trapped and only the water percolates. The rocks are allowed to dry out in the summer every year or so and replaced. This type of water reuse is however fairly rare in Waghad.


    Figure of groundwater recharge process.


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  • SFGate: Flushing Water and Money Down the Drain

    By Peter Gleick

    This essay was originally printed in the San Francisco Chronicle on October 12, 2006.

    Exciting developments in the high-efficiency toilet market may sound like an oxymoron. But installing these water-efficient fixtures throughout California could free up more water than any proposed reservoir or water-supply project – with none of the adverse environmental consequences and at a tiny fraction of the economic or political cost. Recognizing this potential, the Assembly and Senate passed AB2496, a bill that would have paved the way in the coming years for the adoption of new, high-efficiency toilets throughout the state. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, however, vetoed the bill, and in doing so flushed away enough high-quality potable water to meet the needs of millions of Californians.

    Inefficient toilets in California waste a tremendous amount of water and money. The Pacific Institute, the institute I co-founded to research and analyze issues on development, environment and security, estimates that replacing existing toilets with high-efficiency models could save California more than 130 billion gallons of water every year. That is more water than we get from Hetch Hetchy reservoir, enough to satisfy the needs of approximately 1.5 million California residents.

    The water we are flushing is water that we already capture in reservoirs or draw from rivers, transport across the state and purify to drinking-water standards. Once used, this water must be treated and disposed. These processes are expensive and often energy intensive — 19 percent of California’s electricity is consumed by water systems to pump, clean, heat and treat water — yet we continue to flush unnecessarily precious water down our toilets. Saving water and reducing the generation of wastewater could save consumers hundreds of millions of dollars annually.

    California used to be the leader in the area of water conservation and efficiency. More than a decade ago, we pioneered the move toward water-efficient fixtures in our homes and industries. As a result, our population and economy have continued to grow while total water demands have leveled off. Indeed, we use less water today per person in California than we did more than 50 years ago — a fact that most Californians, and indeed most water policymakers, don’t know or appreciate. These improvements in water-use efficiency have eliminated the need for expensive and controversial new supply projects, reduced the damage to our ecosystems, and saved vast sums of money. But we’ve let our lead slip away.

    Water use is starting to creep back up because of the failure of our leaders to continue to apply well-understood technologies and policies to reduce wasteful and inefficient uses. The progress we have made will ultimately be overwhelmed by a growing population if efforts are not made to further reduce wasteful practices.

    Many state leaders on both sides of the aisle — including U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif. — still fail to recognize California’s conservation and efficiency potential and regularly call for the construction of new reservoirs or new subsidies for expensive ocean desalination plants. Not only would any new reservoir be costly and environmentally controversial, no proposed reservoir could possibly yield as much water as AB2496 would have freed up. And given desalination’s extremely high operating and electricity costs – to say nothing of its impact on local marine ecosystems – it makes no sense to produce expensive desalinated water just to flush it down inefficient toilets.

    In his veto message, the governor stated that we need to study these toilets more. Yet we already know that they are standard in Australia, Japan and other countries. Dozens of models from a wide range of manufacturers have been extensively tested here as well and many of them perform better than toilets already on the market.

    A rational water policy requires that we make the best use of the scarce and valuable water we have. That will require that California return to its position of national leadership in the area of water efficiency and conservation, not just in our homes, but in our industries and on our farms. The Pacific Institute has found that California can actually cut its wasteful use of water by 20 percent in the next 25 years with expected population growth, a healthy agricultural sector and a vibrant economy. We won’t get there if the governor vetoes the steps we’re trying to take in that direction.

    Peter H. Gleick, Ph.D, is president of the Pacific Institute for Studies in Development, Environment, and Security, a nonpartisan Oakland-based think tank. He is a MacArthur Fellow.



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