Legislature starts hearings on key water policy bill

Issue Date: October 28, 2009
Kate Campbell

The first hearing of the state Legislature's special session to address the California water crisis featured widespread agreement on one point: Important issues still need to be resolved.

A hearing at the state Capitol in Sacramento Monday focused on the first half of a legislative package to address problems in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and improve statewide water supply reliability. It occurred before a joint meeting of the Assembly Water, Parks and Wildlife Committee and the Senate Natural Resources and Water Committee.

No votes on the legislation are scheduled yet and officials said further hearings may be called this week and next to help hammer out final details of the measure that addresses policy and governance issues. A second piece of the water package, which will focus on funding and promises to be highly contentious, has not yet been finalized. The proposed bond measure will need voter approval, and analysts said its price tag might total about $9 billion.

Danny Merkley, California Farm Bureau Federation water resources director, acknowledged during testimony at the hearing that progress has been made on the legislation, before adding, "We have remaining concerns with this bill in the areas of water use efficiency and surface water reporting, and we're mindful that the funding piece is not yet complete."

Among its provisions, the bill discussed Monday—Senate Bill 1 7X—would require a 20 percent reduction in urban water use by 2020. Water districts that do not meet the conservation target would be ineligible for state grants and loans.

Agricultural water suppliers would be required to submit water efficiency plans.

Merkley said an area of concern for farmers in the legislation is the issue of trying to quantify water savings. He said many farmers, ranchers and agricultural water districts believe the quantification of water savings could lead to government agencies making crop planting determinations, depending on water availability.

"We feel those decisions should be made by markets," Merkley said.

He said Farm Bureau also has some very serious concerns about language affecting the reporting of surface water diversions. The state Water Resources Control Board would be authorized to increase fees for more aggressive monitoring of water diversions.

Another problematic part of the legislation, Merkley said, would allow the state to take more aggressive action to require instream flows for environmental purposes, which would affect existing water rights.

"We also have concerns about increased fees, taxes and regulations and what that might do to California farmers' ability to compete in a global market," he said.

SB 1 7X calls for creating a seven-member Delta Oversight Council that would adopt a long-range management plan for the delta by 2012. The plan would include strategies to improve water supply reliability and export levels while protecting fisheries and the ecosystem.

The bill does not include plans for improved water conveyance. But eventually, as plans are clarified, the council could incorporate a project if approved by the Bay Delta Conservation Plan. The costs of building conveyance, however, would be borne primarily by water districts south of the delta, where customers would benefit from a more reliable supply.

The bill also does not address potential construction of new reservoirs for additional water storage. That would be addressed in the still-unfinished bond proposal.

During the hearing, a number of speakers from the public expressed concern that the governance body described in the bill does not include adequate representation for delta counties and interests. Other speakers expressed reservations about whether the bill adequately protects existing water rights in areas where water originates.

Merkley said Farm Bureau will be submitting written comments and suggested bill language addressing requirements for water use efficiency and surface water reporting.

"It's also crucial that water legislation assures sufficient water supplies to provide food and farm products for our growing population," he said.

State Senate Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, who has been brokering the comprehensive water legislation, was joined by representatives from the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission and Westlands Water District in generally praising SB 1 7X.

MWD general manager Jeff Kightlinger called the bill the best piece of water legislation he has seen in his 25 years of working on water issues.

"Right now we're preparing urban water management plans," Kightlinger said. "But those plans won't work without a reliable water system."

A representative of the Westlands Water District, Ed Manning, described the western San Joaquin Valley as "the canary in the coal mine" because of economic losses caused by water shortages in the region.

"It's safe to say we're happy with the package and specifically the delta piece the way it is," Manning told the hearing. "We're supportive of it."

(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.