Unusual process sends state water bills to committee

Issue Date: July 22, 2009
Kate Campbell

In an unusual move, the state Legislature is opting to address delta water policy through a little-used conference committee approach. The Assembly and the Senate took the first steps last week to pull existing legislation related to water issues into a group of five bills and refocus them on the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

Existing language was stripped from the bills and placeholder language inserted to indicate future intention. The Assembly amended three Senate bills and the Senate amended two Assembly bills, all of which were then directed to the new conference committee.

Legislative staff said creating a conference committee to address issues related to delta water policy will allow for a "full, extended and open public process" to consider delta water issues.

California Farm Bureau Federation Director of Water Resources Danny Merkley said legislative leaders have yet to decide on the size of the bipartisan, two-house committee and who will sit on the committee.

"We'll work to assure that creation of this conference committee allows for a thoroughly vetted and public discussion about this important legislation concerning the delta and water policy," Merkley said. "But, as we've seen, many pieces of legislation fail to recognize the real-world applications of water on land. Hearings on these bills should allow water users, including agricultural groups, to have input on delta water policy in a way not possible using a piecemeal legislative approach."

He said Farm Bureau will be actively involved throughout the conference committee process. One of the points Farm Bureau wants to see recognized by elected officials is that water applied to farmland has resulted in numerous benefits to the environment.

"In the Sacramento Valley, over half of the wetlands are in private ownership and offer valuable habitat to species such as the giant garter snake and the birds of the Pacific flyway," he said. "A mandatory water conservation target could considerably limit water supplies available to privately managed wetlands, as well as state and federal wildlife areas in the delta region."

He stressed that long-range water management strategies must be locally cost effective and technically feasible.

"They have to pay for themselves and the technology must make it possible to actually work," Merkley said.

In the meantime, other water legislation will continue to move separately from the bills to be considered by the conference committee.

For example, Senate Bill 261 by Bob Dutton, R-Rancho Cucamonga, and Denise Ducheny, D-San Diego, would require an urban water supplier to develop and implement water use efficiency measures and create an efficient water resources management plan to reduce residential water use or achieve extraordinary water-use efficiency.

The measure passed the Assembly Water, Parks and Wildlife Committee in early July. Farm Bureau and a diverse group of agricultural and business organizations worked with the authors to include agricultural water use efficiency measures. Farm Bureau supports SB 261 and has been active in developing the technical aspects of the bill's language.

"We're working to increase the awareness of state legislators that California farmers and ranchers have substantially increased their investment in high efficiency irrigation technology such as drip and micro-sprinkler systems," Merkley said. "During the five-year period from 2004 to 2008, $1.5 billion was invested in new high-efficiency irrigation systems in the San Joaquin Valley alone."

Between 1990 and 2000, he said, acreage irrigated with drip irrigation systems in California more than doubled.

"Is agriculture using water efficiently?" he said. "We believe so. Some of the legislation we've worked to amend or defeat in the past two years has failed to recognize the effective water management strategies currently used on California's farms and instead has used a broad-brush, statewide numeric target created from incomplete assumptions."

Merkley noted that farmers, ranchers and agricultural water suppliers can't be expected to invest in efficient water systems "without adequate assurances of future reliable water supplies. We welcome a thoughtful, comprehensive approach to creating legislation that will provide long-term solutions for the delta and the state's other water issues."

He said a comprehensive water package for California must include new surface storage with continuous appropriation, area-of-origin water rights protection, delta ecosystem restoration, improved conveyance, and water conservation and recycling.

The bills directed to the conference committee and their newly stated intentions include:

  • Assembly Bill 39 creates a Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta Plan.
  • AB 49 sets a 20 percent water-use reduction goal for urban users by 2020 and addresses agricultural water-use efficiency.
  • SB 12 establishes a Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta Stewardship Council.
  • SB 229 authorizes adoption of a comprehensive Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta Plan.
  • SB 458 enacts legislation for the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta Conservancy and modifies the Delta Protection Commission.

(Kate Campbell is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at kcampbell@cfbf.com.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.