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Calif. farm groups fret over groundwater bills

Tim Hearden

Capital Press

Farm groups are lined up in opposition to a pair of bills in the California Legislature that would give the State Water Resources Control Board broad new powers to oversee groundwater use statewide.

Capital Press

SACRAMENTO — Farm groups want lawmakers to put the brakes on a comprehensive statewide groundwater management package about to be sent to Gov. Jerry Brown for approval.

Companion bills moving through the Legislature would give the State Water Resources Control Board broad authority to oversee groundwater management and set up local agencies that would charge fees to implement the rules.

The state’s “very broad policy” would apply in healthy aquifers as well as problematic ones and would have a “fundamental impact on managing groundwater basins throughout California,” asserted Justin Oldfield, the California Cattlemen’s Association’s vice president of government relations.

“The bills as they’re currently written are implemented by a local agency but they’re very, very hard-pressed by the state,” Oldfield said, adding the state water board would serve as a “backstop” against local agencies that deviate from the state’s rules.

“You could get a situation where the water board could be adjudicating groundwater basins if a local agency couldn’t come up with a plan that’s consistent with the regulations the water board adopted,” he said. “That’s not really local control.”

The main legislation, Senate Bill 1168 by Sen. Fran Pavley, D-Agoura Hills, passed the state Senate 24-12 on Aug. 19 and was headed for an Assembly vote. Its companion, Assembly Bill 1739 by Assemblyman Roger Dickinson, D-Sacramento, faces a final vote on the Senate floor. Lawmakers have until Aug. 31 to get bills to Brown’s desk.

The process has gone too quickly, asserts the California Farm Bureau Federation. The bills “will have huge long-term economic impacts on farms, the state and local economies and county tax (rolls), with a very real potential to devalue land and impact farms’ and businesses’ viability and in turn impact jobs,” the CFBF argued in an Assembly bill analysis.

Farmers fear the notion of ceding oversight of critical irrigation water to the state, complains CFBF president Paul Wenger, a Modesto almond grower.

“Our members would probably just as soon say no,” Wenger told The Associated Press. “We know we can’t completely say no. People know there’s a problem we have to get our hands around.”

The state water board doesn’t comment on pending legislation, spokesman Tim Moran told the Capital Press.

The measures come as environmentalists have long maintained that California is the only state in the country not to regulate groundwater use. They blame what they see as overuse of wells for endangering the creeks and trees that rely on the aquifers to thrive.

In California, 30 percent of total water usage is provided by groundwater, making the Golden State the biggest user of groundwater in the nation, and 43 percent of the state’s residents obtain drinking water from aquifers, state water officials have said.

As the state was entering its third year of drought, Brown in January called for improved groundwater management as part of his California Water Action Plan. In July, a University of California-Davis report warned that farmers’ groundwater supplies could be depleted next year if they’re not replenished by rain and snow this winter.

The two bills’ proponents, including the California Water Foundation and the Community Alliance with Family Farmers, argue the cumulative overdraft of groundwater basins is equivalent to the water stored in Lake Tahoe and that the overdraft will only get worse without better management, a Senate bill analysis notes.

But many farm groups have lined up in opposition, including Blue Diamond Growers, California Citrus Mutual, the California Fresh Fruit Association, the Nisei Farmers League and the Western Growers Association. The groups say they, too, want better groundwater management but they’re concerned about the bills’ broad scope and specific impacts, the analysis states.

The CCA’s Oldfield complains the bills came out just before the Legislature’s summer recess and have been changing constantly.

“Going to the last two weeks of the legislative session, that’s not enough time to give it the attention this issue deserves,” Oldfield said. “It needs to be done, and it needs to be done right. We need to be sure our members’ water rights are protected.”


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