Commentary: Affordable water matters to farms, environment


Issue Date: March 25, 2015
By Chris Scheuring
Chris Scheuring
Cabbage grows in Ventura County. A court ruling in a case involving Ventura County groundwater upheld a policy decision that helps keep agricultural water more affordable in the area.

At bottom, there are really only three long-term fundamentals that California farmers and ranchers need to sustain our state's agricultural economy, to keep it the most productive and efficient farm mosaic in the world: sun, soil, and water.

Fortunately for us, I know of no regulatory or natural development that is likely to affect our access to sunshine, at least on a meaningful time horizon.

The availability of soil is a different matter. As a state, we in California have created initiatives such as the Williamson Act land-conservation program out of the recognition that farmland is a valuable natural resource. There is no doubt that we continue to face challenges in protecting the land—and that we will face more challenges in the future as our state's population continues to grow.

Still, I am optimistic that if we remain vigilant, we can rise to meet these challenges through many of the tools we already have at our disposal. It will be a hard pull, but I think we're going to be able to save much of our landscape for productive farming and ranching for the foreseeable future.

However, the availability of water is what I call our existential threat.

Access to our native water resources, and affordable pricing of those resources, is going to determine how—and for that matter, whether—we farm in this state as we look out toward the year 2100. You know the trends: an infrastructure for water storage and delivery that has not kept pace—not even close—with the tripling of California's population in the last 40 years, and an expanding overlay of environmental requirements that restrict water use. And you know that too often, the agricultural use of California water resources has been forced to yield to new demands.

California water policy is famously complicated, but there is cause for optimism on at least one front: The voters of California last year overwhelmingly passed Proposition 1, which is expected to yield money, at last, for new storage, to the tune of $2.7 billion for the public benefit of new projects. This may result in significant new storage—perhaps a few million acre-feet, which is a positive development if not a game-changer—and it is a welcome sign in an otherwise discouraging picture for the long term.

At the same time, however, we face a number of contrary supply trends, which include implementation of the new Sustainable Groundwater Management Act and the potential effects of global climate change, which are expected to force re-operation of our water systems.

That brings me to pricing. I believe the state is going to continue to grow, and I believe that environmental constraints will continue to operate in California water policy. We can hope that our water supply will continue to expand alongside population growth and environmental policy, through additional storage, conjunctive-use projects, groundwater banking, water recycling, desalination and other approaches. I happen to believe that it won't be enough—and that brings me back to pricing.

Recently, a California appellate court released a decision in a case called City of San Buenaventura v. United Water Conservation District, in which the California Farm Bureau Federation participated on behalf of its members. In that case, the court upheld a pricing strategy for agricultural water use, in part because of a 50-year-old policy decision made by the Legislature in a statute that was at the crux of the case. That statute applies directly only to groundwater pumping fees imposed by a certain type of water district in California. It mandates a certain ratio between agricultural rates and municipal and industrial rates—a considered policy decision that helps keep agricultural water affordable in those districts.

As CFBF articulated in that case, agricultural water use has a number of additional public benefits, apart from the obvious benefit of producing food and fiber: It may support habitat, recharge underground aquifers and contribute to the essential character of open space. For those and other reasons, including the inherent value of local food production, we should all value agricultural water use. The Ventura case highlights the issue of price signaling and what uses of water we'd like to preserve for the future. The cost of water very much determines how—and if—we will farm here in California in the decades to come.

Going forward, therefore, I believe we need to think very strategically about how agricultural use of water is priced, among other things in the implementation of SGMA across the state. There is a solid case to be made, strictly in environmental terms, for keeping water affordable for farming and ranching in California: In a global agricultural economy, when production of food and fiber becomes unaffordable or impractical in one place, it doesn't go away—it just goes somewhere else. After all, there are 7 billion people on the planet that need to be fed and clothed. Farmers and ranchers in California operate efficiently, productively and sensitively—and if unavailable or unaffordable water forces them out of business, their place will be taken by farmers in other parts of the world who don't necessarily operate under those same strict standards.

(Chris Scheuring is managing counsel for the California Farm Bureau Federation. He may be contacted at cscheuring@cfbf.com.)

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