Opponents ask Governor to Veto Groundwater bills

Source: Dave Kranz; Ag Alert

Farmers, ranchers, other water users and nearly three-dozen members of the state Legislature have urged Gov. Brown to veto a package of groundwater-regulation bills that reached his desk in the waning hours of the legislative session.

The bills-Assembly Bill 1739 by Assembly member Roger Dickinson, D-Sacramento, and Senate Bills 1168 and 1319, both by Sen. Fran Pavley, D-Agoura Hills-would establish a broad, new regulatory framework for managing groundwater.

Gov. Brown has until Sept. 30 to sign or veto the legislation.

Opponents, including the California Farm Bureau Federation, say the bills go well beyond addressing issues of basins in overdraft, casting a cloud on water rights and establishing requirements that will lead to confusion and litigation.

CFBF President Paul Wenger said Farm Bureau has always encouraged the proper management of groundwater, but that doing the job efficiently and effectively should have been the priority.

“Instead,” Wenger said, “the Legislature took the ‘ready, fire, aim’ approach, rushing these bills through and creating a massive new regulatory program in the final days of the legislative session.”

Farmers, ranchers and other California landowners will be left to pick up the pieces, he said, dealing with the consequences of the legislation for years to come.

Under the bills, basins in critical overdraft would be required to develop groundwater-management plans within five years. Other basins would have seven years, but low- and very low-priority basins would not be mandated to develop plans.

A bipartisan group of 35 Assembly members and senators urged Gov. Brown to veto the legislation and to call a special session of the Legislature in December to reconsider groundwater management.

“Like you, we are concerned about the increasing conditions of overdraft in many groundwater basins,” the legislators wrote to the governor. “However, the legislation before you punishes groundwater users in basins that have little or no overdraft or already have effective management efforts in place. It will also infringe upon the right to groundwater, at a time when available water supplies are getting tighter.”

The legislators warned that the authorities granted in the groundwater legislation “will radically alter the landscape of groundwater law” in coming years and will have “a destabilizing impact on those who depend on groundwater supplies.”

In their letter, the legislators said they are willing to help the Brown administration craft a “narrower, more effective measure focused on basins where real problems exist, encouraging them to implement management measures modeled by other regions, and providing new state authority to intervene where local management fails.”

The letter was signed by Assembly members Katcho Achadjian, R-San Luis Obispo; Travis Allen, R-Huntington Beach; Frank Bigelow, R-O’Neals; Rocky Chávez, R-Oceanside; Connie Conway, R-Tulare; Brian Dahle, R-Bieber; Tim Donnelly, R-Twin Peaks; Steve Fox, D-Palmdale; Beth Gaines, R-Roseville; Jeff Gorell, R-Camarillo; Adam Gray, D-Merced; Shannon Grove, R-Bakersfield; Curt Hagman, R-Chino Hills; Diane Harkey, R-Dana Point; Brian Jones, R-Santee; Eric Linder, R-Corona; Dan Logue, R-Marysville; Allan Mansoor, R-Costa Mesa; Melissa Melendez, R-Lake Elsinore; Kristin Olsen, R-Modesto; Rudy Salas, D-Bakersfield; Donald Wagner, R-Irvine; Marie Waldron, R-Escondido; Scott Wilk, R-Santa Clarita; and Sens. Tom Berryhill, R-Twain Harte; Anthony Cannella, R-Ceres; Jean Fuller, R-Bakersfield; Ted Gaines, R-Roseville; Cathleen Galgiani, D-Stockton; Bob Huff, R-Diamond Bar; Steve Knight, R-Antelope Valley; Mike Morrell, R-Rancho Cucamonga; Jim Nielsen, R-Gerber; Andy Vidak, R-Hanford; and Mimi Walters, R-Irvine.

Other legislative opponents of the groundwater bills from Central California included Assembly members Luis Alejo, D-Salinas; Ken Cooley, D-Rancho Cordova; Susan Eggman, D-Stockton; and Henry Perea, D-Fresno. Perea noted that the bills would have a disproportionate impact on the Central Valley, and said the costs of implementing the legislation would be “enormous.”

CFBF President Wenger said Farm Bureau and other opponents had been able to “take some of the edge off” the bills during negotiations that preceded the final votes on the legislation.

“It now includes protections for water rights and other provisions that could lessen its detrimental impact,” Wenger said. “For that, we must thank those in the Capitol who helped rein in some of the proposals’ worst overreaches and the legislators, both Democrats and Republicans, who voted against the bills.”

Even so, he said, Farm Bureau considers the legislation to be fatally flawed and has urged the governor to veto all three bills.

“True resolution to California groundwater problems will come through measures that this legislation does not address, such as a streamlined adjudication process and the recognition of groundwater recharge as a beneficial use of water,” Wenger said.

Most importantly, he said, California must improve its surface water supplies.

“All the fees and fines in the world won’t heal our aquifers unless California builds additional storage and improves management of surface water in order to reduce demand on groundwater,” Wenger said.

$9 Per Hour Minimum Wage Starts Next Week

By Christine Souza; Ag Alert

Starting July 1, the California state minimum wage increases to $9 per hour, a hike that growers say will result in more challenges on the farm and higher costs overall.

Monterey County strawberry grower Ed Ortega said, “In agriculture, nobody can pay just minimum wage.

“People will find a job doing something else that is much easier work than working in agriculture for minimum wage. They’d rather go and flip burgers for nine bucks,” Ortega said. “Our work demands more than a minimum wage employee, so every time the minimum wage goes up, the whole ladder in our entire pay structure goes up. There’s no such thing as paying the bottom guy more and not the top guy. The whole ladder rises.”

California’s minimum wage increase to $9 per hour is a result of the passage of Assembly Bill 10 by Assemblyman Luis Alejo, D-Salinas, in 2013. AB 10 also provided for a second hike in the California minimum wage to $10 per hour on Jan. 1, 2016.

Bryan Little, California Farm Bureau Federation director of labor affairs and chief operating officer of the Farm Employers Labor Service, said raising California’s minimum wage might have happened through a ballot initiative had AB 10 not become law last year.

Proponents of increasing the minimum wage argue it is needed to reduce poverty, while business groups and those opposed believe raising the hourly minimum wage would increase business costs and jeopardize California’s economic recovery.

“The majority of farmers already pay their employees much higher than minimum wage, so when these changes occur, employees making more than minimum wage expect to stay that much ahead of the increased rate,” Little said. “In the short term, it will increase costs to employers, but the labor supply is tight right now, so workers are already able to demand fairly high wages, but the increase still impacts operating costs and business profitability.”

Phil Martin, professor of Agriculture Economics at the University of California, Davis, confirmed that higher minimum wages affect some employers and workers more than others.

“Most farm employers have a wage structure, with some employees earning the minimum wage and others more. If the minimum wage rises by $1 an hour, workers earning more than the minimum wage normally expect a similar increase in order to keep their status in the wage hierarchy,” Martin said. “Employers often respond to higher wages with productivity increasing steps, from providing tools that enable workers to work faster to harvesting fields and orchards less often.”

Martin added that fewer new immigrants have already put upward pressure on farm wages and encouraged more use of labor-saving and productivity-increasing machines.

The new minimum wage has triggered other wage concerns for agriculture employers, Little said.

“A number of other costs associated with employing people are tied to employee earnings, like Workers’ Compensation and Unemployment Insurance; the increase in the minimum wage will directly and immediately impact employers’ costs for that. Also, if farm employers augment their workforces by bringing in farm labor contractors, the farm labor contractor is likely to increase the price of the workers they provide to cover that minimum wage increase and related costs.”

Farm labor contractors can be more efficient, and employ people year-round and spread their employment costs across more jobs than a farmer who employs a small number of people can, Little added.

“Farmers face several challenges in 2014, including implementing the Affordable Care Act and dealing with the effects of the drought,” Martin said.

This season, when it comes to the availability of employees, Ortega said, he is again experiencing a shortage of workers.

“We are experiencing the normal shortage that we experienced last year, which is a pretty extreme shortage of labor. Those who have less of a crop to harvest have a more severe labor shortage than those who have a crop to harvest,” Ortega said.

Whether a farm will attract the workers that are needed, Ortega said, depends on the size of the ranch and whether there is enough work to keep employees working. Smaller farms will have more limited opportunities.

“Any farmer who is experiencing a decrease in the water supply will also be experiencing extreme pest pressures, and if you have increased pest pressure, it means higher cost to the farmer,” Ortega said. “It’s an exponential factor. It’s not just raise the minimum wage a dollar; the associated costs go a lot higher than that.”

California is one of 18 states and the District of Columbia that have minimum wages above the federal minimum of $7.25 an hour and California’s $10 minimum is likely to be among the highest in the nation in 2016. Washington currently has the nation’s highest state minimum wage at $9.19 an hour.