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President's message--Water: There’s more hard work ahead

Issue Date: August 20, 2014
Paul Wenger

Last week was an interesting one in the ongoing saga that surrounds everything related to water. The water bond discussion was suddenly front and center, not so much driven by pragmatic discussions among interested parties, but by the time clock that was running short for printing the November election ballots. Without some action being taken by two-thirds of the Legislature and a signature from the governor, the bond as originally approved and subsequently postponed from the 2010 and 2012 elections would be on the ballot. That bond was for $11.14 billion. The governor wanted a smaller overall bond that he could embrace and that would be viewed favorably by voters on Nov. 4.

There is often substantial drama that surrounds legislative proposals, but in keeping with the saying, "water is for fightin'," this bond discussion set a new standard. Without going into the mundane details and the hyperbole that occurred during and after the bond-bill discussion and its near-unanimous passage, it's important to focus on what's ahead as it relates to water.

This will be the first water bond in many years to be put before voters that is really about water supply and reliability. None of the five previous "water" bonds passed by voters since 1996 invested in storage. The fact that a new bond proposal passed the Legislature and was immediately signed by the governor is great, but now the focus must be on getting voter approval. This will take a concerted effort on everyone's part, or last week's hoopla will be for naught.

It's difficult to say which proposed projects would receive funds from the water bond if passed, and how much money they would be allotted. Bond funds would be directed to qualifying projects, for the "public benefit" component of that particular project. The metrics to decide the value of the "public benefit" have yet to be determined, so it's impossible to say which projects or how many would be helped with bond funding.

The greatest result from the bipartisan bond bill and signature by the governor was the recognition by governmental leaders that California must invest in its future, by investing in its water system.

The work now shifts towards putting differences aside, whatever they may be, and working for the successful passage of the water bond, Proposition 1. The time is short to mount a successful campaign and it will be important that those organizations and individuals working so aggressively to pass the bond legislation answer the bell as loudly for raising campaign funds.

The importance of having Gov. Brown support and campaign for the water bond cannot be overstated. It was one of several key issues that Farm Bureau stressed in meetings with the governor and legislators during the water bond discussions. However, we must also show our commitment as agriculture to passage of the water bond. As farmers and ranchers, we know the initial investment of time and capital in our farms, ranches and businesses is just the first step.

As the proverb so eloquently states: The race is not to the swift nor the battle to the strong, but to those who endure to the end. California farmers and ranchers have endured through a lot of challenges, many manmade. We must now join together to make a clear statement that California is once again on a path to continue our prominence in providing food and fiber for the world.

Meanwhile, as many revel in the wake of the bond bill's passage, an ominous and imminent threat is unfolding in the halls of the Capitol. Groundwater legislation is being discussed that could have immediate and lasting impacts on property rights and land values.

Two bills were introduced as the Legislature came back from summer recess. No one argues that some areas of our state have challenged groundwater basins, but most are not in immediate threat of overdraft.

Groundwater has been the water supply cushion for farmers, ranchers and municipalities during times of drought. Three dry years, with 2014 being critically dry, only accentuate a problem that has been developing, and expected by many, for the last several decades. The push for "conservation-only" water policies instead of new water development has only hardened the demand for the water we have available each year, with less stored supplies for times of drought. That means groundwater is being tapped more often and for longer periods because of the continuing constraints of inflexible environmental regulations.

The groundwater bills being discussed in the Legislature could have significant impact. For such an important proposal to be finalized in less than a month is preposterous and leads to the type of negative reaction many citizens hold for the legislative process. It's time to stop the "legislation by morning headlines" and have thoughtful discussion on important issues, such as water. Such thoughtful discussion will lead to the best possible outcomes with the fewest unintended negative consequences.

Realizing the immensity of this issue, the CFBF Board of Directors has directed staff to engage in every way possible, to ensure that the focus of any proposed groundwater legislation not impact areas without severe overdraft. Any legislation should encourage all areas of the state to manage their groundwater basins locally. Because of our members' commitment, CFBF has been able to devote hundreds of hours of time from our legal team on this issue. CFBF legislative staff and officers have also been actively engaged in meeting with allied organizations, legislators, agency staff and the governor's administrative staff on this critically important issue.

We have only a few days remaining in the legislative session, which is scheduled to end on Aug. 31. It will take the engaged and united efforts of all agricultural organizations to prevent the passage of the disastrous groundwater legislation now proposed, or to develop a workable substitute that appropriately focuses on those areas most needing attention. We look forward to expressing our concerns and considerations to the governor regarding groundwater, so we can continue the potential for bipartisan, positive outcomes that were finally realized with the water bond bill.

The benefits for our entire state with the successful passage of a water bond would be great. But long before any bond-funded water project can be built, both the current strength and future potential of California agriculture could be severely undermined, if we lose the rights to groundwater as we currently know them.

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

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