Capital Press

A bill to prevent the long-term transfer of public water from agricultural to urban areas receives its first committee hearing April 13.

AB2049, by Assemblyman Juan Arambula, D-Fresno, goes before the Assembly Water, Parks and Wildlife committee. It would prohibit the state's Water Resources director from approving transfers with a term longer than 10 years.

Rural jurisdictions, especially in California's San Joaquin Valley, have long feared losing the water allocations that districts receive through state contracts. A sale last year of up to 14,000 acre-feet annually from the San Joaquin Valley to a growing urban district in Southern California helped to stoke those fears anew.

But they're not shared by observers and state officials. Despite crop-market swings and drought conditions making life hard for farmers, large, long-term transfers are considered anomalies, occasional occurrences whose frequency likely won't increase by much.

The sale last year was reported to amount to $5,500 per acre-foot. Prices paid by farmers for transferred water can reach the $500-per-acre-foot range.

But officials say long-term transfers will remain the rare, sporadic occurrences they've long been. That perception owes to several realities, chief among them a culture of protectiveness among landowners with water contracts.

Much more common are temporary transfers of those contracts, often single-year sales. Water officials say contractors should make better use of transfers, calling the practice key to the state's long-range ability to weather droughts.

Ellen Hanak, director of research with the Public Policy Institute of California, says ag uses four-fifths of the state's combined farm- and urban-use water. There are few signs suggesting that ratio will change by much, Hanak said.

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