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Commentary: Groundwater legislation could be checkmate

Issue Date: June 4, 2014
Paul Wenger, CFBF president

Everywhere you turn, the impacts of Drought 2014 are front and center. News reports compete to describe dire circumstances, whether high food prices, water rationing or limited recreation on lakes and reservoirs. Most of the reports fail to focus on why and how California finds itself in this terrible situation.

As the old saying goes, "No one plans to fail, they just fail to plan." What California is experiencing today should be a wake-up call to those who have the responsibility to provide for our state's populace and economy. Droughts are as natural as rain, and not being prepared for the inevitable is a dereliction of responsibility.

As farmers and ranchers, our success or failure is tied directly to water. We all have varying water supplies that depend on differing water rights. But the most common right for all property in California is the right to access groundwater as needed for beneficial use. Farming is one of the most basic of beneficial uses. While some growers rely entirely on groundwater for nurturing their crops, others use it to augment surface supplies. All farmers have a right to access their fair share of the water under their property. In some cases, water basins have been adjudicated due to competing interests wanting to legally stipulate their supply.

As I've stated in earlier commentaries, there's an inseparable relationship between groundwater and the supply and reliability of surface water. When surface water is in short supply, groundwater has been the buffer for human needs until surface water reliability is re-established.

In order to assure efficient utilization of water resources with the unpredictability of naturally occurring supply, a system of surface water rights was established to protect those who depend on water for their livelihood and who made significant investments based on those rights. The oldest water rights are riparian and pre-1914 water rights. Many of those rights were utilized to develop the water storage projects that have provided for human and environmental needs.

During the last 30-plus years, it became vogue to object to surface water storage, and as a result very little new water infrastructure has been added to provide for our state's growing domestic needs or for the ever-increasing international commerce originating in California. It has become popular to disregard the multi-faceted benefits of surface water storage and focus on the negative impacts, real or imagined. There are pros and cons to everything, but the benefits from surface water storage far outweigh the negatives. Those who disregard the value of responsible water storage often recite euphoric visions of the state before it was home to 38 million residents, boasting an economy larger than many nations. Water has been responsible for the golden hue of our great state, more than any other natural resource.

As water supplies have become more constrained due to decades of failure to plan, there has been increased focus on water use efficiency. While this is a worthy undertaking, in many instances, this has caused groundwater supplies to become challenged due to increased dependency on groundwater plus reduction of groundwater recharge, which has not been considered a "beneficial use" of surface water. Where once they were regional concerns, water reliability and access to groundwater are now statewide issues.

When regulatory fiat demanded more stored water be dedicated for environmental uses, even when the public didn't pay most of the cost for the infrastructure that provided the water for prescribed releases, farmers responded by becoming more efficient and, at times, more reliant on groundwater.

Now, the same institutions responsible for failing to plan for our state's increased water demands are singing the same old song about groundwater. The refrain from the halls of the Legislature, from the regulatory agencies that oversee water, from the media: Control and conserve, and everything will be fine.

As you read this, Farm Bureau and allied farm organizations are engaged at every level of government, to protect farmers and ranchers' access to groundwater and historic rights that have been recognized for more than 100 years by the state and federal governments. The right to access groundwater that can be reasonably used must be protected while local and regional entities work to address depleted aquifers.

We are close to a finality that will change our state forever. While it is completely understood that the personal water needs of our state's 38 million residents take precedence over other needs, food and employment are not far behind. For most people, in fact, the need for food would be at the front of the line after daily water needs.

For farmers, the value of our land is tied directly to water availability and reliability, and we must stay informed and be engaged. Even if you do not currently use groundwater from beneath your property, the ability to access that water based on historic law is tied inextricably to your land value.

To limit access to groundwater beyond recognized yield constraints is simply following the same game plan that got us into this mess with surface water—only this time, farmers will have nowhere else to turn, no other direction to look.

If you think of the water situation in California as a long-term chess game, this will be checkmate.

It has taken more than 30 years to get us to the point where cuts in surface water supplies have threatened groundwater availability, and no one should rely on the possibility that those who got us here will adequately address groundwater issues. Simply saying we can fix California water problems by limiting access to groundwater is just plain wrong.

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

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