CULTIVATING COMMON GROUND: Economic Analysis of Drought on California Agriculture

Editor’s note: We thank Aubrey Bettencourt for her contribution to California Ag Today’s CULTIVATING COMMON GROUND commenting on the report, “Economic Analysis of the 2016 Drought for California Agriculture,” released this week. Lead UC Davis author Josué Medellín-Azuara’s response can be read below. 

 

By Aubrey Bettencourt, executive director, California Water Alliance (CalWA)

 

Josué Medellín-Azuara, Duncan MacEwan, Richard E. Howitt, Daniel A. Sumner and Jay R. Lund of the UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences, ERA Economics and the UC Agricultural Issues Center reported their views on the economic impact of California’s continuing drought on agriculture this week. The study, “Economic Analysis of the 2016 Drought For California Agriculture,” proved to be uncommonly riddled with errors, questionable metrics and inaccuracies; it’s a continuation of a disturbing recent trend.

CA Water Alliance logo

 

The authors claim that about 78,800 acres of land might be idled due to the drought, but a quick Google search shows a single water district that had more than 200,000 acres of fallowed land in 2016. There are more than a hundred other water districts throughout the state, and most are reporting idled acreage.

 

In another irrigation district in Yuba County, more than 100 agricultural users have been cut off entirely, leaving their nearly-mature crops and fruit and nut trees without water.   [North Yuba Water District (NYWD)]

 

This year the federal and state water projects announced they would provide agriculture with 55% of their water. Two months ago, they reduced the estimate to 5% south of the Delta, and they are struggling to even deliver that amount.

 

Across the state, water prices have increased dramatically, whether pumped from the ground or bought on the faltering water-exchange market. Water that costs less than $250 per acre foot in 2012 now costs up to $750 or more.

 

It doesn’t take a doctoral or economic degree to understand that when the price of water goes up, the cost to produce food also goes up. Farmers may be getting more money for the produce they grow, but they are watching their bottom line shrink because it costs more to grow it. Even water from their wells isn’t free; pumping takes energy, and energy costs money too.

 

Adding to rapidly increasing costs are the new minimum wage, capped work hours, and hundreds of regulatory mandates from the 80+ local, state, and federal agencies that oversee every aspect of California farming and bury farmers in paperwork and red tape. Compliance takes time away from growing food, and it costs money.

 

Take a look at rice farmers. Growing rice today is a losing proposition. After the labor, cost of rice plants, fuel, fertilizing, care, harvesting, drying and milling, growers pay substantially more to grow rice than they can charge for their crop. Many have converted rice paddies to other uses, and some sell their water or take money from federal agencies and conservation groups to create wildlife habitat in order to simply stay afloat. Some are selling off their land to developers, a lose-lose decision affecting everyone.

 

On main street, consumers are another group taking a second, alarmed look at their grocery, water and sewage bills. All are rising far faster than inflation. Whether you are talking about the price of fruit, bread and eggs or the cost of taking a shower, all have been increasing over the past five years because of the drought.

 

To really understand what’s happening, take a drive out of the city and into the countryside where your food is grown. Stop at a roadside produce stand or park your car and strike up a conversation with some ranchers and farmers in a small town cafe.

 

After you hear their stories, you may realize that almonds and pistachios are not as labor intensive as strawberries, tomatoes, cucumbers, grapes, beef, lamb or many others out of the nearly 450 crops grown in California. Some crops are thirstier than others, too. This doesn’t diminish the value of these fruits, nuts, vegetables, and proteins. The value of water is what it provides us: in this case, safe, local, and hopefully affordable food.

 

But commonsense interviews and case studies of actual operations — once the heart of any competent agricultural economic study — are virtually missing from the report’s statistical models built on university computers, research hypotheses and tables of statistics.

 

The drought has hurt California farmers, and it is hurting Californians wherever they live. Gross income may be up, but net profits are down, and the rate of decline hasn’t hit bottom yet. 


Aubrey Bettencourt is the executive director of the California Water Alliance (CalWA), a leading educational voice and authority on California water. CalWA advocates for the water needs of California families, cities, businesses, farmers and the environment.



Editor’s note: California Ag today thanks Josué Medellín-Azuara, senior researcher, UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences, and lead author of “Economic Analysis of the 2016 Drought For California Agriculture,” published this week, for his response to several claims made by Aubrey Bettencourt (above).

UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences
Josué Medellín-Azuara told California Ag Today, “I will not go over debating the comments which I very much welcome and respect, but I would like to provide some thoughts instead.”

 

1)  “Through remote sensing,” Medellín-Azuara said, “we estimated summer idle land in Westlands by the end of the irrigation season to have been 170K acres in 2011 and just above 270K acres in 2014,” based on NASA data. The difference can be explained by some drought effects and other conditions, according to Medellín-Azuara, “so idled land differences should be taken with a grain of salt. As a point of interest, most of the fallow land we estimated was on the Westside of the south San Joaquin Valley.”

 

2) In addition, Medellín-Azuara clarified, “My understanding is that there is a cost issue and a cutoff issue. We estimated about 150 TAF (Thousand Acre-Feet) of [water] shortage in the Sacramento Valley in our study. At current conditions for North Yuba Water District (NYWD) agriculture is no more than 3 TAF from my reading of the attached document. I am not saying the cutoffs are not hard for the more than a hundred users, but [I] also want to put numbers into perspective.”

 

3) “From what I’ve heard and read,” Medellín-Azuara stated, “the timing [of] more than quantity of the projected releases is unfortunate. One of the things we highly encourage in this and past reports is easing of low environmental impact water transfers among users.”

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Water Priorities Initiative Aims for 2018 Ballot

New Deadline for Water Priorities Ballot Measure

The California Water Alliance (CalWA) announced TODAY it has shifted its focus to qualifying the The Water Priorities Constitutional Amendment and Bond Act Ballot Initiative for the 2018 ballot instead of this fall’s general election, as originally planned.

With massive public support, CalWA has in a very short time succeeded in collecting more than half of the 585,407 signatures required to qualify the measure but fell short of today’s deadline to place the issue before voters this November, said CalWA’s executive director, Aubrey Bettencourt, who underscored that all signatures collected to date count toward the July 25, 2016 deadline for 2018 as well.

“While we certainly would have preferred to get this critical issue in front of voters this year, we have every confidence that we will be able to collect the remaining signatures by this summer’s deadline for 2018,” she said. “One of the benefits of setting a very ambitious timeline is that we have already surpassed the halfway signature mark and established a solid campaign operation, strong momentum and growing public awareness about the failed promise of the high-speed rail project and how to best fix California’s broken water system.”

Aubrey Bettencourt, executive director of the California Water Alliance
Aubrey Bettencourt, executive director of the California Water Alliance

Additionally, Bettencourt said the signature gathering process for the water priorities initiative will become more productive and affordable now that the April 26 deadline has passed.

“The new deadline is turning out to be a blessing in disguise because the unusually large number of ballots in circulation had driven up costs to a ridiculous level,” she said. “The 2018 ballot will likely be less cluttered and provide Californians more time to focus and appreciate the benefits of the proposal.”

Recent polls show Californians strongly support terminating the Governor’s priority high-speed rail project and using its funds to provide people with more water.

“Our donors and volunteers are excited that we have a clearer path and more time to solve a problem that frankly has been 50 years in the making,” said Bettencourt. “This also provides our community leaders with enough time for Sites and Temperance to go through their approval process under Proposition 1.”

Information about the measure is available online at CaWater4All.com.

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About the California Water Alliance The California Water Alliance is a statewide nonprofit organization dedicated to raising awareness about the nature of water and promoting long-term, sustainable solutions that meet the health and security needs of families, cities, businesses, farmers and the environment. To learn more, visit www.CaliforniaWaterAlliance.org.

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About the California Water Alliance Initiative Fund Committee The California Water Alliance Initiative Fund Committee (FPPC ID#1381113), sponsored by the California Water Alliance, a non-profit IRC §501(c)(4) organization, is a state primarily formed ballot measure recipient committee organized to qualify two or more state ballot measures for the November 2016 ballot. It is permitted to accept unlimited, non-tax-deductible donations from individuals, corporations, partnerships, nonprofit organizations, and any other lawfully permissible sources. For more information and restrictions, please visit http://cawater4all.com/

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Included at bottom of press release: Paid for by California Water Alliance Initiative Fund, with major funding by California Westside Farmers State PAC and Chris J. Rufer, Sacramento, CA

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California Water 4 All Initiative On for 2016, with 2018 as Backup

California Water 4 All Initiative Still On for 2016, with 2018 as Backup Plan

Late last week, word spread that the @CaWater4All Initiative may postpone the Water Priorities Constitutional Amendment and Bond Act proposition from the 2016 ballot to the 2018 ballot. California Ag Today’s Patrick Cavanaugh, farm news director, spoke with Aubrey Bettencourt, executive director of the California Water Alliance, which is behind the initiative, with major funding by California Westside Farmers State PAC (FPPC #1381113).

Cavanaugh: Is the @CaWater4All Initiative campaign still slated for the 2016 ballot?

Bettencourt: We did not stop the campaign, but we do have two deadlines. In other words, we are looking at all options. We are still on track for 2016; we are not letting up on gathering signatures. And if for some reason we reach the April 26, 2016, deadline for placement on the November 2016 ballot, but with an insufficient number of signatures, then we will steer for the 2018 ballot. I feel strongly that support is still there to pass the measure.CaliforniaWater4All

Cavanaugh: So there is a full-court press for unpaid volunteers to get the signatures by the 2016 ballot deadline. How will you ramp up the volunteers to sprint to the finish line?

Bettencourt: We are working on strengthening and systematizing our volunteer coordination across fourteen counties so it can be replicated among the various teams in Riverside, Los Angeles and Fresno, for example, working in concert. We know what works for each team, and we want to share event promotions and workloads and more.

Our ground game for the next few weeks will become completely guerrilla. I’m actually surprised how well developed our infrastructure has become statewide already, and I think with a little more coordination, it will be a force of nature.

We are also continuing to build connections outside of agriculture because this issue is so much more than agriculture.CA Register to Vote

Finally, if conditions change on paid-signature gathering pricing, we of course will return to paid collection.

Cavanaugh: Will the signatures for the 2016 ballot be valid for the 2018 ballot?

Bettencourt: Absolutely.

Cavanaugh: I understand one reason you added the 2018 option was the sudden and crazy surge in street price for paid signature gatherers – more than double their previous rate?

Bettencourt: There are currently 12 propositions in the state that need signatures, so the price per signature has jumped from $2.00 to $5.00 and could go higher in a last ditch scramble to qualify by the April 26 deadline. Never before this year has an initiative signature gone above $3.00; this is truly unprecedented! We had budgeted to gather signatures at $2.65 to $3.65 each, normally a strong offer, but it would be irresponsible and unsustainable to be caught in the frenzy and pay double for signatures without guarantee of qualification. Such an expenditure would have implications for the fall election campaign for the measure if we qualify. For this reason, we simply told the company to pause on gathering signatures for the time being, but to remain on stand-by. We expect the market will shortly calm down.

Cavanaugh: So in tapping the breaks on the professional signatures, you are now relying on the volunteer base to get the needed number?

Bettencourt: We have swung our resources over to maximize our already strong volunteer side. We will continue our fundraising, of course. If we reach the week before the April 26 deadline and think we have enough signatures, we will turn them in to qualify for the November 2016 ballot. If not, we will continue collection until we qualify for the 2018 election instead.

Cavanaugh: Are there any benefits to being on the 2018 ballot?

Bettencourt: Yes, there are a couple of positives to rolling to 2018. When the April 26 deadline hits, the other 11 or so propositions that are paying $4 to $5 per signature may all either qualify, roll over, or drop out. Then the initiative market stabilizes, we can jump back in and pay only $2 per signature or less, a significant savings. With no other propositions on the street, the price will drop, the field will be clear and our efforts will yield higher numbers of signatures.

More importantly, if we were to qualify for 2018, we would be among the first propositions to qualify, and we would be higher up on the ballot. Ballot position is important; if you are low on the ballot, the likelihood of getting a ‘yes’ vote is generally more difficult.

Sign of drought Westlands Water District TurnoutThe mid-term election without a presidential election can also create a less expensive election with fewer initiatives. And with Governor Brown a lame duck in his last year as governor in 2018, he may be less inclined or he may lack fundraising capacity and resources to fight our initiative. Some Democratic candidates for his seat are already declared opponents of High-Speed Rail, so that would also help.

Cavanaugh: What about the provision in your initiative that would reallocate $8 billion in unused High Speed Rail (HSR) bonds to water storage? Will that fund be essentially empty in 2018?

Bettencourt: We double-checked with attorneys engaged in fighting HSR and with the Citizens for California High Speed Rail Accountability (CCHSRA) group. Both said the HSR Authority could not access that funding in the interim, unless they were to fulfill their complete system plan. Given they are not close now and never have been, and HSR continues to be held accountable through the courts, it is highly unlikely they will be able to touch that money in the next two years.

Cavanaugh: And what about the Prop 1 dollars allocated for more storage? Will the funding still be available in 2018?

Bettencourt: I’ve been told there is currently an estimated $40 billion worth of water projects competing for the $2.7 billion of Prop 1 funding, including Sites and Temperance Reservoirs and numerous groundwater projects and water recycling programs, and more. And Prop 1 does not guarantee the construction of any one of them. For the next two years, the California Water Commission will try to finalize its criteria and process for considering and valuing project applications, approve some project applications, and perhaps appropriate funds to them. If the Water4All initiative qualifies for the 2018 ballot, we have two years to make the same case that we have been making so far:

  • There is not enough money to build the water storage, groundwater recharge, stormwater capture, water recycling, etc. the state needs.
  • The timeline does not work. The Bureau of Reclamation is clear—without a significant and immediate expansion of new surface water storage, Californians will be 4.9-6.2 million acre-feet short of having enough water to serve our families, farms and protected environment.

Cavanaugh: Can you explain how growers in northern California will be safe with their senior water rights if the initiative passes? There seems to be great concern there.

Bettencourt: There are two specific exemptions within the Water4All Initiative that protects all established water rights structures in California—the foundation and bedrock of our water system. Keeping these rights protected and intact when we wrote this initiative was critically important. So, our constitutional amendment refers only to prioritization of beneficial uses, which is defined as the purpose for which water is used after it has been diverted by rights. It does not change the underlying rights, whether senior or junior, consumptive or non-consumptive, or any rights subject to contractual agreements such as those held by the Sacramento River Exchange Contractors with the Central Valley Project.

By definition, beneficial use is subservient to water rights. Our constitutional amendment, as well as in the statutory bond funding portion, has specific exemptions for all pre-1914 water rights, area or origins and existing water rights structures.

Cavanaugh: It seems, then, the initiative strengthens senior water rights?

Bettencourt: Many attorneys who have experience on matters specific to pre-1914 and other water rights, have said the initiative actually strengthens existing water right structures.

It reaffirms both the past decisions of the people of our state and our earlier legislature that respectively created Article X of the Constitution and the California Water Code’s laws. Moving Section 106 of the Water Code to the Constitution resets water law to a preexisting legal framework that long guided California’s water-use decisions, but is now muddled by the courts and legislature. Restoring this clarity will yield lasting benefits to the state’s people.

It will end attempts to grab water from existing rights-holders and divert it away from the purposes for which our water systems were designed and built.

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LA Included in Water Priorities Act

CaWater4All-Proposed Water Priorities Act Includes Los Angeles

By Patrick Cavanaugh, Deputy Editor

The Water Priorities Constitutional Amendment and Bond Act is good for all of California—people, farms and the environment. Should the required 565,880 petition signatures necessary for inclusion on the November 2016 ballot be collected by the April 26, 2016 deadline, and should the Water Priorities Act receive a majority of affirmative votes in November, it will provide big benefits to cities such as Los Angeles.

“The availability of regional water projects is massive for our urban centers,” stated Aubrey Bettencourt, executive director of the California Water Alliance, the ballot initiative’s sponsor. “The ability for urban centers to create water in their own regions and become less dependent on other parts of the water system, actually helps the other regions in the system as well.”
CaliforniaWater4All

The proposed water priorities act creates flexibility all around. Bettencourt explained, “Consider that the Los Angeles (LA) River loses as much water in an average storm event as the water supply for 180,000 homes annually—in one storm! In an average normal water year, Los Angeles loses the equivalent of the Shasta Reservoir in stormwater runoff, and they are under state and federal mandates to capture that water, recycle it and put it back in their water supply. This helps clean up their beaches and ocean water, which would otherwise end up with a lot of pollution through runoff,” she said.

“This ballot measure would increase their regional water supply by capturing and injecting stormwater runoff back into their groundwater supply. That would providing flexibility and reliability to the water supply for Southern California, but also affordability, which is such a key part of this effort,” Bettencourt noted.

“And Governor Brown just extended the drought cut mandates through the end of October of this year, and a lot of communities are conserving and conserving,” she said.”They are conserving so much that they using less; and, now they have to pay more because they are using less. So they are using less water, paying more for it, and still being punished. And that should not have to happen if we have a system big enough to supply all of our diverse water needs: agricultural, urban and environmental.”

Bettencourt noted, “The system hasn’t been updated since the late ’60’s-early ’70’s, in terms of some of our large-scale infrastructure. And you have to remember, our population was half the size it is today, and we didn’t have the same type of demand on that system that we do today,” she emphasized.

“Currently, we allocate 50% of our surface water to environmental protection. That is not wrong; but what is wrong is that we didn’t expand the system enough to take care of that allocation and our people. That is what this water ballot initiative is aiming to provide:  to increase our infrastructure to meet the demands of the 21st century,” said Bettencourt.

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Links:

California Water Alliance Initiative Fund

California Water Alliance

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California Water Priorities Ballot Measure

Petitioning for California Water Priorities Ballot Measure Kicks off Friday in Fresno

 

California Water Alliance (CalWA) executive director Aubrey Bettencourt announced TODAY that a petition drive for the California Water Priorities Ballot Measure will take place Friday, January 29, 2016, at KMJ Studios, 1071 W. Shaw Avenue in Fresno, from 2-6 pm.

Earlier this week, the proposed ballot measure was approved by Attorney General Kamala Harris, opening the door to begin signature-gathering efforts with initiative supporters. Since the measure’s approval, CalWA has received an overwhelming amount of support and requests for petitions to circulate.

Electronic copies of the petition are not available, as use of them would disqualify the signatures gathered. Requests for petitions may be made online at www.CaWater4All.com. CalWA will begin mailing petitions on Friday, January 29.

A second signature drive is being scheduled February 9-11, 2016, at the World Ag Expo in Tulare. More information on this event will be available on the CaWater4All website.

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The California Water Alliance is a statewide nonprofit organization dedicated to raising awareness about the nature of water and promoting long-term, sustainable solutions that meet the health and security needs of families, cities, businesses, farmers and the environment. 

The California Water Alliance Initiative Fund Committee (FPPC ID#1381113), sponsored by the California Water Alliance, a non-profit IRC §501(c)(4) organization, is a state primarily formed ballot measure recipient committee organized to qualify two or more state ballot measures for the November 2016 ballot. It is permitted to accept unlimited, non-tax-deductible donations from individuals, corporations, partnerships, nonprofit organizations, and any other lawfully permissible sources. For more information and restrictions, please visit http://cawater4all.com/.

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Resources:

 

The Water Priorities Constitutional Amendment and Bond Act Fact Sheet

California Water Explained

California Water Use Facts

California Water Polling Infographic

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Water Initiative Approved by AG

California Water Priorities Initiative Goes to Ballot

The Attorney General of California, Kamala Harris, has prepared the following title and summary of the chief purpose and points of the proposed water initiative:

WATER BOND. REALLOCATION OF BOND AUTHORITY TO WATER STORAGE PROJECTS. INITIATIVE CONSTITUTIONAL AMENDMENT AND STATUTE.

Prioritizes water uses in California, with domestic uses first and irrigation uses second, over environmental, recreational, and other beneficial uses. Reallocates up to $10.7 billion in unused bond authority from existing high-speed rail ($8.0 billion) and water storage ($2.7 billion) purposes, to fund water storage projects for domestic and irrigation uses.

Removes requirement that water storage projects funded by the $2.7 billion amount also benefit the environment. Creates new State Water and Groundwater Storage Facilities Authority to choose the projects to be funded by reallocated bond amounts. Summary of estimate by Legislative Analyst and Director of Finance of fiscal impact on state and local government:

No significant increase or decrease in the state’s anticipated debt payments from the redirection of up to $10.7 billion in bonds from previously approved measures, assuming these bonds would have been sold in the future absent this measure. Unknown net fiscal effects on state and local governments due to measure’s changes to how water is prioritized in the State Constitution, as well as potential changes to funding levels available for capital projects.

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“Measure is an opportunity for California’s people to influence the state’s priorities directly” said California Water Alliance, executive director Aubrey Bettencourt, executive director of the California Water Alliance, which is the sponsor of the water initiative.

“It’s a rare chance for the people of California to tell the state to get its priorities straight,” Bettencourt said. “High-speed rail is an unpopular boondoggle and a reliable water supply means more to the people and economy of this state in light of the current drought than ever before. Californians want to prepare the state for inevitable new droughts yet to come.”

Bettencourt emphasized that adding more storage to the state and federal water project systems will benefit more than just people and food producers, it will mean that wildlife refuges and habitats throughout the state will benefit from additional water when new droughts inevitably arrive. “The measure will give the system more operational flexibility and more options,” she said.

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About the California Water Alliance

The California Water Alliance is a statewide nonprofit organization dedicated to raising awareness about the nature of water and promoting long-term, sustainable solutions that meet the health and security needs of families, cities, businesses, farmers and the environment. 

About the California Water Alliance Initiative Fund Committee

The California Water Alliance Initiative Fund Committee (FPPC ID#1381113), sponsored by the California Water Alliance, a non-profit IRC §501(c)(4) organization, is a state primarily formed ballot measure recipient committee organized to qualify two or more state ballot measures for the November 2016 ballot. It is permitted to accept unlimited, non-tax-deductible donations from individuals, corporations, partnerships, nonprofit organizations, and any other lawfully permissible sources. 

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California Water Priorities Ballot Measure Review Completed

Legislative Analyst Completes Review of California Water Priorities Ballot Measure

California Water Alliance (CalWA) executive director Aubrey Bettencourt announced TODAY that California Legislative Analyst Mac Taylor and Director of Finance Michael Cohen reported their findings to Attorney General Kamala Harris regarding CalWA’s proposed constitutional and statutory amendment for November’s General Election ballot.

In its report to Attorney General Harris, the Legislative Analyst’s Office (LAO) found that the water priorities ballot measure “would not significantly increase or decrease the state’s anticipated debt payments.”

“We are pleased that the LAO agrees that our measure performs as we intended and has no undesirable fiscal effects,” said Bettencourt. “From the outset, we wrote it to avoid any new taxes, new debt, new user fees, or other costs to the state’s taxpayers.”

The measure would redirect up to $10.7 billion in previously-authorized High-Speed Rail Project and 2014 Water Bond general obligation bond authority to fund construction of specific water-storage related projects throughout the state and amend the state’s constitution to prioritize uses of water, putting people’s needs first.

By helping to solve California’s water storage infrastructure needs, the initiative would remove unspent bond funds from the High-Speed Rail Project approved by voters in 2008, now listed as the least important infrastructure priority according to the recent Stanford Golden State Poll. Dealing with the state’s water problems is the majority of voters’ top priority, according to the same poll.

CalWA sponsored the measure with State Senator Bob Huff and Board of Equalization Vice-Chair George Runner, its proponents.

The LAO also found the net effect of the measure on federal funds and its impact on state and local governments were unknown. The LAO also reported the measure could cause unknowable changes in other state capital projects.

 Bettencourt said that Attorney General Harris is expected to finish her review within a week and release an official title and summary for the measure, the first step in circulating petitions to qualify the measure for placement on November’s ballot.

“The people of California will be given the ability to reprioritize the state’s direction for the needs of today—from a high speed train to water storage,”  Bettencourt said. “They will soon be able to sign the measure’s petition and help us in our efforts to qualify this important initiative measure for a vote of the people,” she concluded.

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About the California Water Alliance

The California Water Alliance is a statewide nonprofit organization dedicated to raising awareness about the nature of water and promoting long-term, sustainable solutions that meet the health and security needs of families, cities, businesses, farmers and the environment. To learn more, visit www.CaliforniaWaterAlliance.org.

About the California Water Alliance Initiative Fund Committee

The California Water Alliance Initiative Fund Committee (FPPC ID#1381113), sponsored by the California Water Alliance, a non-profit IRC §501(c)(4) organization, is a state primarily formed ballot measure recipient committee organized to qualify two or more state ballot measures for the November 2016 ballot. It is permitted to accept unlimited, non-tax-deductible donations from individuals, corporations, partnerships, nonprofit organizations, and any other lawfully permissible sources. For more information and restrictions, please visit http://cawater4all.com/

Paid for by the California Water Alliance Initiative Fund |  455 Capitol Mall Suite 600, Sacramento, CA 95814

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California Water Ballot Initiative

California Water Ballot Initiative May Go to Voters in Nov. 2016

Aubrey Bettencourt, executive director of the California Water Alliance (CalWA or “Alliance”), described the Alliance’s California water ballot initiative to California Ag Today’s farm news director, Patrick Cavanaugh. If passed by the voters, the measure, which rests in the hands of California Attorney General Kamala Harris to approve it for inclusion on the state’s November 2016 ballot, would strikingly change the water horizon for California. The initiative prioritizes all water to go to citizens of California and then to farms, before it reaches the environment. It combines $8 billion from the high-speed rail project funding with the $2.7 billon approved in November 2014 for water storage projects.

CalWA, a non-profit advocacy and education organization that is dedicated to raising awareness about the nature of water, advocates for the short- and long-term, sustainable policy and infrastructure positions that meet the need for safe, reliable and affordable water by the people, cities, businesses, farms and environment in California.

Aubrey Bettencourt, executive director of California Water Alliance
Aubrey Bettencourt, executive director of California Water Alliance

Cavanaugh: You have created a California water ballot initiative that, hopefully, will appear on the November 2016 ballot.

Bettencourt: Yes. It’s known as “California Water 4 All,” and it is really quite simple. After the Water Bond of 2014 passed, the California Water Commission—the fund administrators entrusted with the $2.7 billion allocated for water storage—placed other stipulations on that funding.

For instance, 50% of the water had to go to the environment and 50% had to directly benefit the Delta. Furthermore, the Commission would not release project funds prior to December 2016, so even though voters allocated funding and were promised water storage, construction was not to start for a long time. All these stipulations on the California Water Commission, through no fault of their own, actually challenged and limited the availability of regional water projects.

Then, when the Commission started to monitor both its funding and its responsibility over that funding—which we don’t blame them for, whatsoever—a lot of organizations that had opposed the Water Bond in 2014 for creating new water storage, suddenly started soliciting the Commission with letters saying, “You don’t have to define that water storage component as traditional water storage. You can open up that funding and grant it to anything else. You don’t have to use it for new water.”

We, as an organization, filed a number of letters in response and actually brought it to [the press], “Hey, they are trying to gut this tiny sliver of funding that was allocated in this program voted on by the people of California as a promise to create new water for us in this drought.” And also, “$2.7 billion would maybe build one and one half projects in California.”

We all know our water infrastructure is 60 years out-of-date, and it cannot keep it up with the needs of the environmental community, the government community, the agricultural community, and the urban community. You will hear everyone say that our infrastructure is so out-of-date that it can’t even keep up with the number of people we have or the amount of priorities we have set. Take a look at how various environmental projects end up competing against each other; a good example is when all of this came to light in the 2014 water bond fight.

Look at this year alone; there wasn’t enough water in storage and there wasn’t enough water available anywhere, so state policymakers had to decide between species. Which species were going to live? Which species were going to die? Why? ’Because there wasn’t enough water for all of them.

There are wetlands in Los Banos that never got water. The creatures and animals and species that are dependent on that habitat and viable property for their existence, did not get that opportunity. Why? ’Because an environmental project and species upstream took higher priority. There is not enough water to go around for all of the water users.

Cavanaugh: So what was the thought process behind combining the approved public funding of the high-speed rail project with the approved Water Bond funding?

Bettencourt: We are very connected to our community. We have always heard, “Well what if we could just change the priorities?” So we thought, “What if we could just take that money being used for high-speed rail and use it for water storage?”

Fallowed Field in Fresno County, California in 2014 due to zero water allocation.
Fallowed Field in Fresno County, California in 2014 due to zero water allocation.

Finally, our conversation with a number of our members and board transitioned to, “Well, what if? What would that look like?” Nobody had really looked into it. So our board decided to really invest into what that would look like. Could it be done? We were always told it couldn’t from a practical standpoint or even from a legal standpoint. We spent some time and resources looking into “What if” with some great legal minds in Sacramento.

We spoke with other organizations and people, especially those who had been involved in the rail and transportation side of this equation longer than we had—Citizens for High Speed Rail Accountability, most notably. We started pooling our resources into this inquiry, and sure enough, we found out it could be done.

Cavanaugh: And if the initiative were allowed on the ballot, it would be up to the voters to decide?

Bettencourt: Yes, it would. So, as we looked at it, we figured it was really quite remarkably elegant to reprioritize. And really, the theme of this ballot initiative is priorities. It is about getting our priorities in this state in the right order again and letting the public direct our elected officials with those decisions.

This ballot initiative takes the unissued bond funding from the high-speed rail project, which is about $8 billion, plus the $2.7 billion in water storage money from the 2014 Water Bond, and pools it in a new locked fund. The reason we did that is, quite frankly, “Why would we have two pots of money going toward the same thing?” It all needs to go into this new locked fund with the sole purpose of expanding the supply of new water for the state of California.

That fund can’t be borrowed against, pulled away from or pirated. The only way to change that funding would be to go back to the ballot and get the voters’ approval to move that funding around again.

An elected board would administer the locked fund.

Cavanaugh: ’Not the Water Commission?

Bettencourt: ’Not the Water Commission, nor appointed body at the state level, not even a legislative body. The board would be elected members from each of the water management districts. So, people from your community who have expertise and experience in water in their own region administer this fund that will benefit the entire state. Everybody gets a vote. You don’t have one region of the state having more of a vote than another region of the state; that is not what happens here. Everybody has a vote, and there is one at-large member that everyone in the state gets to vote on.

Cavanaugh: What about the Bay Area, and Los Angeles?

Bettencourt: ’Equal Players. Each of the regions has a representative on the board.

Cavanaugh: They only get one vote?

Central Valley Project (CVP) Water
Central Valley Project (CVP) Water

Bettencourt: That’s right. So, in that structure, the funding is used fairly for the whole state. That is the long-term infrastructure portion of the proposed initiative.

We always talk about how the water crisis in California has two problems. One is an infrastructure problem, and, two: we have a management crisis. We don’t have set rules and regulations for where our water goes and how.

Cavanaugh: Can you elaborate?

Bettencourt: A good example is our own governor is saying he doesn’t have a plan for getting us out of this, and we don’t know what will happen when it starts raining. We don’t know how the system is supposed to be operated. There are no guidelines on the books anywhere right now. And in this time of drought, where you have low supply, you are seeing regulators making ad-hoc decisions. Well, there are no rules and there are no first, second, and last priorities. They are making decisions on a case-by-case basis, and that is no way to solve this.

We address the long-term shortage by expanding our water supply with more storage. Expanding the water supply for everyone increases the flexibility of our system, overall, for the environment, for agriculture, and for the communities of our state.

Cavanaugh: Is a constitutional amendment part of the initiative?

Bettencourt: The theme of this ballot is to get our priorities straight. We are taking what is already in the California Water Code that was passed in 1928. The people of California said, “This is the way we want our water used and in this priority,” and it was put in the California Water Code. Since then it has been subjectively adhered to.

But we take what was in the California Water Code—the intention of the people of California—put it into the State Constitution. And we say, “Reasonable and beneficial use of water is for people, food security, irrigation; and then everything else.” And we define what that is.

It is very simple. It is nothing new. It is already out there; but what is so important is that it addresses the immediate, and it instantly hands down the guidelines:

So, this is how we operate the system.

This is how we make these decisions.

These are the rules and orders of operation.

This is how we get ourselves out of the drought.

This is how we get our system back up and running. This is how you address the short-term: by setting the priorities, making them clear, providing guidelines to the regulators so they can do their jobs on behalf of the people of California to get us out of this drought and protect us from future droughts. From an operational standpoint, this provides the certainty we need in our water supply that we just don’t have. Also, when you expand supply for everybody, you gain back flexibility in the system.

Cavanaugh: That’s great, because as we know, the proposed Temperance Flat Reservoir can move water North or South and really help out if a seismic event were to occur in the Delta. How do we get around the Environmental Species Act (ESA) rules that affect the Delta?

Water in Friant-Kern Canal
Water in Friant-Kern Canal

Bettencourt: That is all federal, and this initiative does not address federal law. This is purely California-only. However, I think, should this measure pass, it would bump against the federal statute from an infrastructure standpoint because California pays for half the cost of an infrastructure project and from an operations standpoint as well. How would the federal regulatory system affect this California measure, should it pass? A new dialogue with the federal government would have to ensue after state voters adjust the priorities for our water supply.

Cavanaugh: So “California Water 4 All” is going to address water infrastructure. Of course, you can leave the whole ESA out of the conversation. So are building dams beyond Temperance, plus the Cross-Valley Canal the top priorities?

Bettencourt: Yes, we outline four specific projects within the infrastructure component of this initiative: Temperance Flat and Sites are the two darlings of the recent new water projects. In addition, we outline raising both Shasta and San Luis, which would minimally impact the environment and maximally impact water supply. The cost is low because while you are building on existing infrastructure and having less impact on the space you are taking up, you end up capturing more water utilizing existing footprints, which is great.

So we outline those four specific projects, which leaves almost $5.5 billion for additional regional water projects with the stipulation of creating new water. One good example is our partners in the Southland have a mandate from both the state and federal governments to capture and use storm runoff, but they don’t have the mechanisms to do that.

This ballot initiative could help them capture and store rain runoff in Southern California, which would provide more local regional water and increase flexibility to move water around the state north of them. So it is all about capturing more water and expanding supply, so we have more supply to go around.

Cavanaugh: It appears the best part of this initiative is that it benefits everyone in the state.

Bettencourt: Absolutely, and that was important to us when we crafted this initiative, that it couldn’t be so tight. This proposal really does benefit the entire state, not only from the macro-economic standpoint, such as new reservoirs; we are talking about groundwater recharge, storm water runoff, water recycling, desal, all of these projects would have a nice pot of money with the explicit direction of creating new water supply. And the best part about this entire initiative is it doesn’t cost anybody anything.

Cavanaugh: That must ring very nicely up there in Sacramento.

Bettencourt: It does. There is no new burden on the taxpayers; these are dollars that already been approved of by the voters. The only thing we are doing is reprioritizing. It is no different than if you are at home considering, “Well, I’d really like that new pair of shoes, but I have a leaky toilet I must fix. I’m going to take that money and say, “The shoes are great. I love the shoes. They get me to where I want to go, but the toilet is kind of mandatory right now. It is the only one in the house and that’s that priority.”

We have only one water supply, and transportation is absolutely important…

Cavanaugh: You are talking about the health and safety of the state—not just drinking water—but health and safety.

Bettencourt: The health and safety of our state and its environment are absolutely important. We were talking about this as a team, and someone on the team said, “This is about survival. In order to survive, you need to know what your need and use priorities are.”

California voters have made priorities of water need and use very clear, and it is time that we put that first so we can afford everything else. This is a great state and our organization always advocates from the position of, “We should be able to BE the Golden State and grow and revolutionize going forward over the next century. And that will happen if we get up to speed and have our priorities straight to meet and provide the most basic needs of the innovators and doers of California.

Lettuce Harvest in Fresno County
Lettuce Harvest in Fresno County

So we have written the initiative; that was a heavy lift. Then we found two great proponents in California State Senator George Runner, Vice Chair of the Board of Equalization, and California State Senator Bob Huff to act as our submitting proponents. We, at CalWA, are the sponsoring organization, and we have submitted the package to Attorney General Harris.

Now the Attorney General has 50 days from November 13, 2015 to say, “Yes this can go on the ballot,” and to return it with a suggested title and ballot summary or how it will appear on the ballot to be read by the voter.

We have also held required meetings with the Legislative Analyst’s Office, which score the ballot measure’s costs to the taxpayer. The costs will be budget neutral because there are no new funds. So, after 50 days, we will know whether or not we will be permitted to qualify for the ballot. We are hoping we will be, at which point we would have until April 16 to get 900,000 signatures of California voters to qualify automatically.

Cavanaugh: April 16 is not a lot of time before the election.

Bettencourt: That’s right. So everyone with a ballot initiative has to follow these rules: 50 days then hit the streets and get the signatures. This is the campaign mode so voters can make this decision in November 2016.

Cavanaugh: Do you anticipate any lobbying from Attorney General Kamala Harris’s office?

Bettencourt: No, It’s strictly in Kamala Harris’s hands on this one. We are permitted to suggest our own title and summary, but the decision will come from her office. I think over 100 ballot initiatives have been submitted.

Our biggest concern is that someone will say there are too many initiatives. Secondly, how do we stand out among so many other ballot initiatives?

Cavanaugh: How do we ensure this initiative stands out? It is going to be competing for attention in a presidential election year, as well as a big election year in the state, so it is no easy undertaking.

Bettencourt: The feedback we are getting is voters want to make this decision. They want to say, “Yep, we are changing priorities, not that we think certain projects are not important. We believe certain projects are more important than others at a given point in time.”

Cavanaugh: Doesn’t it seem like the best time to do it? A poll of California citizens shows they are concerned. The top priority, behind jobs, is water availability.

Bettencourt: Yes, the Public Policy Institute of California’s polls over the last year support that. And I think the Hoover Institute conducted an independent survey of California voters at the beginning of last year, ranking the top 36 priorities of the state: number 36 was high-speed rail and number 2 was water. So the California public is stating, “This is our priority now.” We want to make sure we give the voters of California an official opportunity to say that.

Cavanaugh: While we wait for the Attorney General’s approval or disapproval, where can we get more information on California Water 4 All?

Bettencourt: Visit our website: CAWater4All.com. There you will find the language of the ballot initiative. You’ll be able to read the legalese, first-hand. It is about 25 pages—could be worse; could be better.

We worked really hard to make that tight. You’ll also find summaries of the initiative, how it benefits the environment, what the facts are on high-speed rail and why all of a sudden we think high-speed rail needs to be a different priority at this point. What are the facts on water supply and where are we on our storage? Where are we regarding the competing mandates on our existing supply? Why are changes in direction and priority needed? We must create certainty in our water supply so we can get out of this drought and we need to know how to handle the next one when it comes.

Cavanaugh: Comment on your outreach for people to connect with you on the website to increase voter awareness of what’s going on.

Bettencourt: We are setting up this campaign to be as interactive with constituents as possible. Right now during the 50-day period, there is not much to do besides staying connected with us. We’ll be communicating on a weekly basis, if not more often. We’ll share not only what are other people saying about the initiative, but also where we are in the process: when it is time to sign up, to volunteer and to help us gather these signatures and where to get them.

If you visit the website, CAWater4all.com, you’ll can register with your email, your cell phone if you choose, and your zip code so we know your location in the state. You’ll be able to stay connected with us on next steps in the process and be active with us as well. There is also a donation page. This ambitious endeavor is going to take time, treasure and talent, so we need all the help we can get.

Cavanaugh: Once on the ballot, what do you envision initiative cost will be?

Bettencourt: The rule of thumb for an average statewide campaign in California when we took this on was $10 million, and that is the operating budget we are thinking about here. So, this is going to take little donations and big donations. But more importantly, this is going to take spreading the word, so we really encourage people to get connected.

Cavanaugh: Other social media?

Bettencourt: All social media:  @cawater4all on on Twitter and cawater4all on Facebook as well.

 The Water Priorities Constitutional Amendment and Bond Act (Source: California Water 4 All, CalWA)
The Water Priorities Constitutional Amendment and Bond Act (Source: California Water 4 All, CalWA)

Links:

California Water Alliance

California Water Code

Citizens for High Speed Rail Accountability

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Aubrey Bettencourt on The Water Priorities Ballot Initiative

California Ag Today met up with Aubrey Bettencourt, executive director of the California Water Alliance, and learned about a new ballot initiative that the CWA has sponsored and is working on getting on the ballot for the 2016 election. The Water Priorities Constitutional Amendment and Bond Act seeks to increase water storage for all uses. To learn more visit: CAWater4All.com. Video filmed by Patrick Cavanaugh and edited by Charmayne Hefley.

Water Rally Calls for Action

Water Rally Calls for Action, More Voices

By Brian German, Associate Broadcaster

At the recent “Take Back our Water Rally” in Mendota, hundreds gathered to call on Governor Brown to recognize the impact of not just the drought, but the bureaucratic decisions that have had devastating consequences for California farmers. Leadership at the water rally called for action and more voices in the plea for change.

Aubrey Bettencourt, executive director of California Water Alliance, shared some points she made a the rally, “My challenge to this audience was to understand there is a void of leadership. We have a governor who says he is handling this, and he is not. We have no recovery plan for how to get out of this drought. How do we get out of the crisis?  There has been no pathway to recovery, neither from the federal government, nor the state government.” Finally, last month, a group of 47 legislators, both Republican and Democratic, called for a special legislative session.

Bettencourt pointed out the Ag industry is not alone in having been adversely affected by the water constraints. “We all need to communicate to our elected officials,” she said, “that we need a path to relief. My challenge to the audience was to help them realize that because the drought is now statewide and regulatory constraints have drastically cut the regular water supply, we are all—ag and urban communities—even the environmental conservation community—feeling the effects. While we’ve been in this situation for years, and years, and years, we need to expand our base and build our army.”

Many attendees are concerned about the use of the Endangered Species Act to cut water supplies that Central Valley farmers depend on in order to increase populations of a fish that can just as easily be grown by the thousands in hatcheries.

Calling to educate those outside of agriculture to advocate for change in water policies, Bettencourt remarked, “Help those who are unfamiliar with the importance of supply, or more importantly, the lack of supply, to understand why they are frustrated, what is really going on, and how California’s water supply really works. Let’s activate them to being an additional voice to ours; encouraging many voices from diverse locations saying the same thing is the only way the agricultural community, and all stakeholders in California, will ever be heard,” she said.

While forecasters are still optimistic El Niño will deliver heavy rainfall, Bettencourt says California’s water issues will continue unless there is a change in the legislature. She emphasized it would take a big push from more than just the agricultural sector to demand the change that is needed. “It is a numbers game,” she explained. “When you look at the population in California, the bulk of the voters are in the Bay Area, along the Coast and in Southern California. If you add up the registered voters of all the agricultural counties in California, the total is not enough to offset even one of those three heavily populated areas. So the sole hope we have to maximize the only two opportunities for input we can control—our voice and our vote—is to get new voices and new votes,” Bettencourt said.

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