(California) Legislative report calls for water changes
supply not sustainable, needs permitting
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
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
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
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."
Hank Shaw is the California editor based in Sacramento. E-mail: