State Must Use Caution on Groundwater Management

california drought

State Must Use Caution on Groundwater Management

July 3, 2014

By Danny Merkley; Ag Alert 

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 feel 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.

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.

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