Commentary: Water solution remains top Farm Bureau priority

Issue Date: September 16, 2009
Rich Matteis

Most Californians agree: Something needs to be done, and soon, to address the state's worsening water crisis. But sometimes, it's better to do nothing than to do the wrong thing. That was the choice that faced us late last week, as the state Legislature struggled to put together a last-minute package of bills to address water issues.

Rich Matteis

No one has been hungrier for a comprehensive water solution than California family farmers and ranchers, and Farm Bureau was heavily involved in the final weeks, days and hours as a deadline for action loomed. But Farm Bureau and other agricultural organizations ultimately had to oppose the bills that emerged from a legislative conference committee late last week.

Finally, early Saturday morning, legislators adjourned and ended the first year of the 2009-10 legislative session without any of the water bills coming to a vote in either house of the Legislature. Our elected leaders faced numerous challenges during the year, including dealing with the state's severe budget crisis—not only once, but twice. The state's fiscal woes overshadowed and took priority over other policy issues, including the most important in the minds of most farmers and ranchers—coming up with a solution to the water crisis.

The governor, the Legislature and key stakeholders have been working for weeks to cobble together a package of bills that would provide for new surface storage with real and adequate funding, address the many issues facing the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and improve water delivery systems, while at the same time not trampling on existing water rights. But as the clock approached midnight Friday night, efforts to move water legislation forward were abandoned—and with good reason.

Creation of new water supplies through aboveground and underground water storage remains a cornerstone of Farm Bureau water policy. This photo shows Lake Oroville, in an image captured last February.

The Democratic leadership of both houses had assembled a water "policy" package dealing with how the delta should be governed, groundwater use and monitoring, instream flows for environmental purposes, water use efficiency and more. The package of bills, which was ultimately assembled into one measure, was rife with problems. Water districts, environmentalists, trade unions, agricultural groups and others all expressed concerns about the package.

Progress was made on the delta governance piece of the package, providing a framework that decision makers and stakeholders can build upon. But it all came down to trying to do too much, too quickly, without sufficient information being provided to key stakeholders. In fact, the 200-plus pages of bill language incorporated into the policy legislation and in one of the accompanying water bond proposals didn't become available until the final 24 hours. That left most interested parties critical of this particular policy making process, wanting more time to carefully review all that had been proposed.

So where does that leave us? Legislative leaders have called on the governor to convene a special legislative session within 30 days, to continue seeking a workable water solution. The consensus among observers is that this will likely be the next step. Farm Bureau will renew our push for comprehensive water solutions, whenever the Legislature reconvenes.

Farm Bureau will continue to emphasize developing a reliable water supply for a healthy economy and ecosystem that will make possible our ability to continue growing our own safe, healthful food and farm products throughout California.

Creation of new water supplies through aboveground and underground water storage remains a cornerstone of Farm Bureau water policy and will be a key factor in winning our support for any future package. A comprehensive water solution must include continued improvements in water efficiency, water recycling and desalination, as well as improved water conveyance.

Farm Bureau was active and engaged throughout the last several weeks of the legislative session, seeking solutions to our water infrastructure deficiencies. Once the Legislature reconvenes to continue its work on this critical issue, Farm Bureau will be on the front lines again, working for solutions that provide for the water needs of agriculture and which protect the existing water rights of California farmers and ranchers.

The fact that the Legislature did not approve legislation last week is actually a good thing. Everyone now has an opportunity to do the job right.

(Rich Matteis is administrator of the California Farm Bureau Federation. He may be reached at

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