Farm groups say bills won't solve water problems


Issue Date: August 26, 2009
Kate Campbell

Water-related activity swirled through the state Capitol last week, but there was little agreement on what the solutions should be and who should pay for them. With less than a month left in the current legislative session, time for fixing California's water woes could quickly wash away.

"We must act now," Danny Merkley, California Farm Bureau Federation director of water resources, told a joint legislative hearing last week. But he noted it's "equally important that we act correctly."

Referring to five hastily compiled bills currently before the Legislature, Merkley said, "This legislative package includes elements we believe will hinder economic and delta ecosystem recovery goals, and the package is lacking key elements necessary for a reliable water supply to achieve those goals."

He called the package of bills incomplete and said it does not address the state's immediate water needs, "which is particularly dangerous if we continue to experience low rainfall in coming years."

During the hearing, Merkley was joined by Brent Walthall of the Kern County Water Agency and Thad Bettner of the Northern California Water Association in expressing opposition to the proposed five-bill package.

Instead, Merkley said Farm Bureau is interested in developing "real solutions for all Californians."

Of primary concern, he said, is development of new surface and groundwater storage with continuous appropriation to address population increases, growing environmental demands and a "reduction in our largest natural reservoir—the Sierra snowpack."

He also stressed that Farm Bureau is committed to protecting area-of-origin water rights and all water rights that Californians and the state have invested in for generations. He said it is essential to improve the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta ecosystem, while taking into consideration the needs of all farmers.

And he stressed that even if the five bills were to pass both houses immediately and be signed by the governor, the state's current water needs would not be addressed.

Farm Bureau opposes the five-bill package because, Merkley said, it does not address the infrastructure improvements required to meet water needs.

He said the bills would also impose fees on all water users to pay for environmental restoration work in the delta.

"We believe the funding approaches in this package will create unintended, negative consequences on an economy struggling to recover and thus impede investment in the environment," he said. "An unbalanced approach to fees fails to recognize where there is public benefit and the need for public funding."

A number of those who testified before the joint hearing pointed out that without a bond measure to provide funding, the actions proposed in the bills would be impossible to implement.

In a letter last week to the Legislature's Democratic leadership, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger said, "I cannot sign a water package if it fails to include a water infrastructure bond that expands our water storage capacity—both surface storage and groundwater—funds habitat restoration, water quality and conservation. I will not sign a water bill without the infrastructure necessary to improve supply reliability."

Outside the hearing room, a crowd rallied for solutions to the state's water crisis and the Pacific Legal Foundation presented petitions with more than 12,000 signatures calling for Schwarzenegger to request that the Obama administration convene the federal Endangered Species Committee—the so-called "God Squad"—to deal with what the PLF referred to as California's "government-caused water emergency."

(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.