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Commentary: State must use caution on groundwater management

Issue Date: June 25, 2014
By Danny Merkley
Irrigation systems such as buried drip, shown here in a processing tomato field, help farmers maximize irrigation efficiency. Farm groups have urged the Legislature to act deliberately on legislation that could restrict access to groundwater, saying the bills could have huge, long-term impacts on farms.
Photo/Kathy Coatney
Danny Merkley

In the face of the California water crisis, many in the state Legislature appear to be rushing toward new groundwater management policy that could threaten certain property rights and the overlying groundwater rights of landowners. Generally, legislation that has been introduced would require groundwater basins to be managed "sustainably" by local entities but would authorize the state government to step in if the local entities do not adopt management plans with certain components by a specified time.

Farm Bureau and other agricultural organizations continue to urge the Legislature to proceed with caution on the issue of groundwater management. Failure to take adequate time to address this complex issue could lead to huge, long-term impacts on farms and on state and local economies. People's livelihoods and jobs are definitely at stake. All involved in the effort to better manage groundwater need to focus on future ramifications of the various authorities and directives being considered.

Groundwater management is as diverse and complex as the 515 distinct basins and sub-basins in California. For that reason, Farm Bureau believes groundwater must be managed locally or regionally, while protecting overlying property rights. To their credit, most of the pending measures do provide for local management, but working out the details is certainly a challenge.

With members of the Legislature feeling the need to do something about groundwater, Farm Bureau is working with other agricultural stakeholders and decision-makers to identify a path forward toward a reasonable and workable groundwater management system.

We have repeatedly stated that the reason we face groundwater challenges is not due to a lack of regulation, but because of lack of availability of surface water. It must be recognized that the state's increased reliance on groundwater for growing food, fiber and other agricultural commodities has resulted not just from drought, but from restrictive environmental laws, court decisions, regulatory actions and "flashier" river systems, as watersheds receive rain instead of snow. All of those factors have reduced availability of surface water—surface water that would help recharge groundwater basins and allow farmers to reduce their reliance on groundwater. Farm Bureau strongly believes groundwater recharge should be established as a beneficial use of water.

The reasonable and beneficial use of groundwater is a basic property right under California law. These rights must be recognized and respected under any groundwater-management framework. This does not mean that areas with significant overdraft issues should be ignored, but that in dealing with these areas, current groundwater rights must be protected.

It also needs to be recognized that restricting the use of groundwater has broad economic consequences for agricultural communities and the farm families, farmworkers and the related support, processing and supply enterprises in those communities. Drastic changes in groundwater policy will impact land values and the ability for farmers and ranchers to secure adequate financing, both for land acquisition and for operating expenses. Declining land values will hurt the property tax base in many areas and, therefore, collection of revenues for affected counties. Therefore, it is imperative that decision-makers consider all the impacts any new groundwater policy will have on those who live and work on our agricultural landscape. Our local communities depend on minimizing the unexpected consequences of any new program.

Additionally, timeframes for achieving groundwater management objectives need to be reasonable; securing our underground water resources is not something that will be accomplished overnight. However, over time, through collaboration and applied effort within local communities, real progress can be made. Should outside help be needed, the state should be available to provide technical assistance and financial support where appropriate.

We also believe that landowners must have the ability and mechanisms to clarify their water rights through adjudication. We are open to considering options that may streamline this process, but protecting the ability to adjudicate is essential.

As we have stated throughout the legislative process, Farm Bureau strongly believes groundwater problems in California would be minimized if we would deal with a longstanding failure to update the state's woefully inadequate system for capturing and delivering surface water. There are several water bond measures making their way through the Legislature, and it is clearly time to pursue funding for substantial improvements in our water infrastructure.

The complexities of groundwater, groundwater management and groundwater interaction with surface water are too great to rush to judgment on an isolated solution. This does not mean that nothing should be done. Farm Bureau has a 20-year history of encouraging the creation of local groundwater management plans and we will continue to do so.

Appropriate protection of groundwater resources for future generations must be carefully thought out, not rushed through the legislative process to meet arbitrary deadlines. There's no good time for hurried legislation, but during a critical drought year, when canals and ditches are dry and groundwater is the lifeline for farms, is absolutely the wrong time. Please contact your representatives in the state Legislature to urge them to proceed carefully on new groundwater legislation, and to take the time necessary to adequately deliberate the issues and to identify and balance the benefits and risks going forward.

(Danny Merkley is director of water resources for the California Farm Bureau Federation. He can be contacted at

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

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