Panel to advocate for streamlining water transfers


Issue Date: October 21, 2009
Dennis Pollock

The state must streamline its system for voluntary, short-term water purchases and transfers in order for farmers on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley to weather another dry year, according to members of a state panel who met in Fresno last week.

The meeting of the California State Board of Food and Agriculture Water Subcommittee featured consensus on water delivery woes and the uncertainty they have brought for farmers and bankers.

Al Montna, president of the board and a Sacramento Valley rice farmer, said the dire need for water is exacerbated because the state has not made it easy for short-term transfers to take place earlier.

"There is no reason we can't have transfer contracts in place now," he said. "There's no reason it can't be done today. It's unacceptable. Water should be committed and ready to go. There are ready buyers and ready sellers. We need action now. We need to move."

Later this month, the panel will recommend to the full board and to state and federal officials that the water transfer process be streamlined.

Among those arguing for streamlining was Dan Errotabere, a farmer in Westlands Water District and president of the Fresno County Farm Bureau. Errotabere said the uncertainty enshrouding water transfers makes it difficult for farmers to plan what crops they may plant and hard "to make their case" to bankers.

Moreover, he said, "even if the water is there, its cost is so high that it is unsustainable. But there's no other choice."

Westlands spokeswoman Sarah Woolf told the panel "transfers are the only immediate solution" to water needs in the district.

The panel asked Woolf, Errotabere and others to supply "drop dead dates" and materials supporting why there is urgency for farmers to arrive at transfer agreements early.

From the audience, Rod Stark, vice president with Union Bank in Fresno, spoke in support of early planning.

"People are coming in now, preparing budgets for the coming year," Stark said. "These are long-term obligations and when they come in, banks are averse to risk."

He said bankers need to know what those risks are "before we can rent them money."

Another audience member, fourth-generation Kings County farmer Jeremy Freitas, said he had "a knot in his gut" as he spoke to the board about all the meetings that have been held on water issues and a seeming lack of action.

"There is no more time," Freitas said. "We need drastic measures to save some communities, some families, my family. This is a disgrace; it's un-American; it's embarrassing."

After Freitas walked out of the room, Montna said, "We've heard Jeremy Freitas' pain. It's time to act. The talking is over."

Another board member, Marvin Meyers, said, "Many growers are about to hit the wall. The banks are scared. Wells are going bad and some growers have exhausted their collateral."

On the west side of Fresno County, Meyers has established a water bank on his farm to sustain his own operation. He said he has been contacted recently by banks asking if he would custom-farm land if other growers are unable to continue their operations.

On the issue of delayed water transfers and high costs for water, he said, "This is a lousy way to run your business and your life."

Board member Don Bransford, a Sacramento Valley farmer, said regulators seem to have "no sense of the urgency" that surrounds water transfers.

The subcommittee also heard descriptions of two short-term projects designed to add flexibility to the California water system.

The acting chief deputy director of the Cal-Fed Bay-Delta Program, Keith Coolidge, talked of efforts to cope with water needs that include an Intertie canal that would connect the federal Delta-Mendota Canal with State Water Project canals, making it easier to shift water.

Dennis Majors, engineering program manager with the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, discussed the Two Gates fish-protection project. It would help keep protected delta smelt away from pumps that move water to state and federal water projects. The Two Gates project would involve use of cargo barges with gates, he said.

Majors said the Two Gates system would also push salts out.

"We hope to get the gates in by the end of the year," he said, adding that there must first be a finding of no significant impact on the environment. The barges would be built off-site and floated in. The structures would be temporary and could be removed if necessary.

Majors said the cost for the Two Gates system amounts to about $55 million, most of it coming from the federal government.

California Secretary of Food and Agriculture A.G. Kawamura said members of the Schwarzenegger administration have been meeting in recent weeks with representatives of other nations where droughts have taken a toll, including Australia, Egypt and Mexico.

Australia alone, he said, has seen its farm gate crop values cut in half. And fallowed land there has resulted in dust storms. Kawamura said cover crops are being used on acreage fallowed in California to avoid that.

In Australia, as on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley, some rural communities are suffering as jobs dry up.

"In some cases, in Australia, people are being moved out of rural towns and are being retrained," Kawamura said.

Among the impacts of water shortages, he said, can be loss of the infrastructure for some commodities as processors pull out of a region due to lack of production, citing sugar beets as an example.

He said delaying action on addressing water needs in California "is not an option; it would be the highest form of negligence. Doing nothing is really stupid."

Gov. Schwarzenegger has called a special session on water, and a state Assembly committee is scheduled to hold an informational hearing on water legislation this week. Neither the full Assembly nor the Senate is expected to convene until next week.

(Dennis Pollock is a reporter in Fresno. He may be contacted at agcompollock@yahoo.com.)

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