Legislative Report Calls for Water Changes

Groundwater supply not sustainable, needs permitting
Capital Press – 11/3/08
By Hank Shaw

The state Legislature’s top analyst has released a report on California’s water supply that could add new life to two perennial issues – regulating groundwater supplies and rewriting the state’s water-rights laws.

The Legislative Analyst report notes that California is one of just two Western states – the other is Texas – that does not have a state-run groundwater permitting law. The report also suggested that lawmakers revise the legal definition of “reasonable use” when it comes to water rights. Neither proposal sits well with the farming and ranching community.

Staffers who deal with water legislation acknowledge that the proposals make sense from a broad view, but they shook their collective heads at the potential legislative war that would ensue should lawmakers take on the issues seriously when they convene in Sacramento this January.

“This’d go over real well with the aggies,” one staffer said, recounting a multi-year row over a bill by state Sen. Sheila Kuehl, D-Santa Monica, that would only assess groundwater levels, not regulate its use.

Catherine Freeman, the author of the report, said groundwater permitting just makes sense. “We think it’s time we come along with other states,” she said.

Texas, the other state without permitting, has so severely overdrafted its Ogallala Aquifer that some small towns have had to be abandoned.

Freeman’s report shows that groundwater makes up nearly 40 percent of the state’s water supply in dry years, a level that many experts do not believe is sustainable. Groundwater pumping makes up only 21 percent of the state’s water supply in wet years.

“In a lot of areas of the state, groundwater is relatively unknown,” said Freeman, who noted that much of Southern California already requires permits to pump groundwater. “We don’t have a sense of how much the groundwater is holding and what is the quality of that water.”

Mike Wade of the California Farm Water Coalition says statewide permitting isn’t needed. “Local water districts and regions do manage groundwater and have done so for decades,” he said.

Farmers and ranchers have traditionally opposed government interference in their use of groundwater because permitting and regulation would likely cost them money – and it may even ban them from growing what they want.

Indeed, Freeman’s report includes a section on how much water the same crops use in different areas. This could lead to policymakers declaring that growing a certain crop in a certain area does not qualify as a “reasonable use” of water, essentially banning it.

Alfalfa is one of the main villains for this point of view. California is a leading alfalfa producer and alfalfa hay is a main feed source for the state’s livestock – especially its largest-in-the-nation dairy herd.

Alfalfa requires a lot of water, and critics say that valuable California farmland would be better used growing higher-dollar crops such as grapes or almonds.

“That we should not grow alfalfa in California is a complete falsehood,” said Wade of the Farm Water Coalition. “The dairy industry, the beef industry, the horse industry are all highly dependent on alfalfa and if we didn’t grow here, we’d have to ship it in from somewhere else.”

Freeman’s report does not single out alfalfa, but it does include a look at “pasture” grown in the Colorado River basin, the area in and around San Joaquin County, as well as the Central Coast.

Her report shows that growing pasture in the Colorado River basin requires more than double the amount of water needed to grow it on the Central Coast and nearly double that needed around San Joaquin. She showed similar results for orchard and tomato crops. Wade said economics can trump water costs.

“Although it may take more water to grow a tomato in the Imperial Valley, we’re growing tomatoes during a time of year when tomatoes won’t grow in the San Joaquin Valley,” he said.

Freeman’s report also suggests tinkering with water-rights definitions to reflect modern water needs. This has been tried before in the Legislature and agriculture has opposed it as a water-grab by urban dwellers aimed at rural California.

The possibilities of much of the report becoming law appear dim – unless the makeup of the Legislature radically changes after Election Day.

Republicans have historically opposed any changes to water-rights law and have consistently voted against groundwater legislation. But Democrats are expected to pick up seats in the Assembly and possibly in the Senate; some are even talking about a two-thirds majority, which would eliminate the need for Republican votes on constitutional amendments or tax increases. Still, rural Democrats in the Central Valley could still block changes.

“I know that there are people in the Legislature who will use this to say we don’t need new resources, that we need to reallocate existing resources,” Wade said. “It throws farmers under the bus.”