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Commentary: Farmers must engage in new groundwater plans

Issue Date: December 10, 2014
By Jack Rice
Jack Rice
Many farmers and ranchers rely on groundwater, and new state law known as the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act will create new challenges for agriculture.

"I don't know what oughta happen, but I know something's gotta happen."

That's how one Central Valley rancher explained his perspective on the groundwater legislation that was brewing last summer. His point was that in certain parts of California, the status quo was not working. But, as he so concisely stated, recognizing the problem was a lot easier than finding the right solution.

Unfortunately, taking time to find the right solution was rendered moot when the Legislature rushed through the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act of 2014, otherwise known as SGMA, at the end of session. This law ushered in both a new era of water management and a new challenge for agriculture. How we respond to this challenge will shape the future of agriculture for a very long time.

We cannot get this wrong.

The challenges for agriculture are significant, both because groundwater is technically and legally complicated, and because managing groundwater can mean limiting how much is pumped. Limiting pumping creates a tension between the need to protect groundwater rights and the need to protect groundwater resources. The "rights versus resources" tension, similar to the one that exists between conserving agricultural land and protecting property rights, needs to be thoughtfully considered by farmers and ranchers, so that advocacy of one does not impair the other.

Although the California Farm Bureau Federation opposed the SGMA, the momentum for legislative action created by drought, regional overdraft and a perceived lack of groundwater regulation proved unstoppable. But our opposition was not entirely in vain. Through the hard work of CFBF and others, improvements were made to the bill that changed it from what would have been an unmitigated disaster, into a framework that at least provides an opportunity for local control and provides the prospect of farmers and ranchers helping to determine outcomes in the groundwater management planning process.

The most important element of success is for farmers and ranchers to engage in the implementation of the SGMA in order to shape local groundwater sustainability plans and to ensure groundwater rights are properly respected. In order to do this effectively, farmers and ranchers must improve their knowledge about groundwater law and hydrology, while also enhancing the skills necessary to engage in the stakeholder processes that will inevitably be part of implementing the SGMA.

Groundwater law in California is complicated and arcane. While no farmer and rancher should be expected to have a thorough understanding of the law, they should have a working knowledge of what the law is. The law gives a landowner the right to pump, and put to beneficial use, their fair share of the safe yield of a groundwater basin. To protect your rights, you must understand those rights.

Groundwater hydrology is even more opaque than groundwater law. Even so, farmers and ranchers need to better understand the distribution and circulation of groundwater in order to be able to meaningfully engage in local groundwater management. For example, even though California law treats percolating groundwater and surface water separately, there is technically no such clear distinction. Because the SGMA requires consideration of surface water, farmers and ranchers need to understand the technical reality of groundwater hydrology in order to manage what is going to be a very significant challenge in some areas.

Finally, in order to put this knowledge to good use, farmers and ranchers need to be effective in their participation. Right or wrong, the decisions that affect our groundwater use will be made in bureaucratic and political processes that are unfamiliar to many of us. Being effective means ensuring we have both the skills and the time to shape the outcome.

Among other things, this means understanding the modern practices of negotiation and dispute resolution. Farmers and ranchers are certainly capable of negotiating and resolving disputes, but most of us are not familiar with modern methods that are likely to be used in the implementation of the SGMA. Once again, right or wrong, these games will be played the new way and we must adapt.

In order to be a force in the future of groundwater, individual farmers and ranchers must become educated and engaged. Although our local governments and irrigation districts are going to be key leaders in implementing the SGMA, only well-informed individuals who are actively engaged will have the influence necessary to achieve success.

So as you become informed and involved, consider these objectives: We must be vigilant about protecting our groundwater rights. We must ensure that improving the availability and reliability of surface supplies remains part of the solution for groundwater sustainability. And we must be clear that groundwater sustainability means economically viable farms and ranches.

(Jack Rice is an associate counsel for the California Farm Bureau Federation. He may 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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