Lack of leadership drags down earlier water transfer efforts
By WES SANDER
Members of the State Board of Food and Agriculture say changes to California's system for approving water transfers are cause for optimism.
In 2009, the state established its third Drought Water Bank -- a clearinghouse for water sellers, usually north-state users, and water buyers, largely San Joaquin Valley farmers.
The bank was more heavily bogged down by procedural difficulties than its predecessors -- one in the early '90s and a second in 2008.
Many San Joaquin Valley farmers see water transfers as a crucial lifeline while drought conditions and environmental restrictions ratchet upward.
But until now, the issues surrounding water transfers didn't register highly enough on the chain of command, said board member Don Bransford, a Northern California rice grower and president of the Glenn-Colusa Irrigation District.
"In my opinion, there was no leadership within the regulatory arena to make these transfers happen, or to make them more efficient," Bransford said. "I think it's moved up, but time will tell."
But there are signs the issue is gaining importance for state and federal officials.
Once significant alteration is California's new Water Transfer Office, established in the fall through state-federal cooperation. The office will direct traffic through permitting while creating a 10-year environmental document that could streamline much of the process.
The collaboration comes after a pledge by Interior Secretary Ken Salazar to work more closely with state officials to address California's water challenges.
Creation of the office also marks the state's switch from a year-to-year trading bank to a permanent system for approving individual transfers. That change is consistent with a board resolution, written by member Adan Ortega, urging agencies to approach drought as a permanent condition.
Bransford said he's hopeful the new office will improve things.
"You've got to get high-level officials in the room to get the appropriate questions answered," Bransford said. "I don't think the higher-level decision makers were in the room to supervise this stuff."
Bransford's district compiled a timeline of the 2009 bank's creation. It chronicles a confused process negotiated by sellers, buyers, the state Department of Water Resources and Water Resources Control Board, and the federal Bureau of Reclamation and Fish and Wildlife Service.
The document outlines a process beset by miscommunication and indecision: The federal bureau said in late 2008 that it would not participate, but changed its mind in the spring; the buyer-seller contract was changed in unexpected ways, creating frustrations; the state eventually bought only a fraction of the water originally made available for trading.
"There are so many regulatory agencies involved in the process, none of those agencies can seem to come together in harmony," said board member and farmer Marvin Meyers, who has fallowed much of his acreage on the valley's parched westside. "If you conform to one agency's demands, then you're out of compliance with another one.
"Somebody's going to have to get together and agree that this is what we've got to do to transfer water," Meyers said.