The Association of California Water Agencies held a Region Six and Seven conference at the Wyndham Hotel in Visalia on Friday, October 11, 2019. Delta View Water Association held its members meeting at the DG Bar Ranch Horse Barn on Thursday, October 17, 2019. The first gathering is part of a powerful, statewide organization with a big say in what happens to California’s water supply. The second gathering is a new group made up of growers from SGMA defined white areas in the Kaweah River Sub Basin. These are two different views about what’s going on in this state. It is not unique in California, the United States or the history of mankind to find that government eventually believes the tax revenue it brings in belongs to it and not the people it is purportedly serving. “Society is endangered not by the great profligacy of a few, but by the laxity of morals amongst all.” – Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America.
There were 70 or more people attending the ACWA Regional meeting; most familiar faces and some folks I’d never met before. That was nice. I knew enough people to feel comfortable but got to meet others with an interest in what’s happening with ag water in the San Joaquin Valley. Brent Hastey, ACWA President from Yuba County welcomed everyone. Fresno attorney Lauren Layne sits as Vice Chair on the ACWA legislative committee and moderated a panel of elected officials for the Perspective from the Capitol discussion. Four members of the California legislature participated: Senator Shannon Grove SB16, Assemblymen Devin Mathis AD26, Joaquin Arambula AD31 and Vince Fong AD34.
The first topic was Senate Bill 1 the California Environmental, Public Health, and Workers Defense Act of 2019. For those of you who have been vacationing on the dark side of the moon for the past few months SB1 was a surprisingly bad piece of legislation, even by Sacramento standards. It had been defeated once before in 2017 under another name; SB49 by state Senators Kevin De Leon and Henry Stern, both Southern California Democrats. Many people believe the bill was actually written by the Natural Resources Defense Council. In 2019 state Senator pro tem Toni Atkins picked up the guts and placed it in SB1. Some of the big dangers beyond what a bill, at its face value, can do are the unintended consequences. The stakes were ratcheted up by slathering a layer of political theater on top when the bill’s timeline was linked to President Donald Trump’s term in office. SB1 would have frozen all the available science to the last day in office of former President Barrack Obama and not allowed it to thaw out until Trump leaves office.
What was surprising was Atkins has been pretty levelheaded on matters concerning agriculture. Ala John Kerry, “I voted for it before I voted against it,” even some Valley politicians; Arambula, state Senators Melisa Hurtado and Anna Caballero initially supported SB1 before ether bowing to pressure or succumbing to common sense or both as sometimes happens in politics and joining in public opposition. The bill would have jeopardized ongoing negotiations known as voluntary agreements between the State Water Resources Control Board and the water rights holders along the tributary rivers on the Valley’s east side regarding through Delta flows. This matter was such a top priority that both then Governor Jerry Brown and governor elect Gavin Newsom wrote letters of support for the agreements to the State Board. The State Board balked and after assuming office Newsom replaced the State Board chair. In the meantime pressure against SB1 continued to grow with ACWA, the California Chamber of Commerce and dozens of other groups, elected officials and businesses in stanch opposition. Whether it was just massive, political tone-deafness or an ill timed display of muscle flexing the Assembly and state Senate passed SB1 forcing Newsom to veto the bill. It’s out of our scope here but SB1 also opens up a new path for attorneys to sue because evidently we don’t have enough lawsuits. That’s where the part about the workers’ defense act comes from.
Discussions amongst the panelist revealed the governor’s wooden veto stake through the heart of SB1 was no silver bullet.* Grove warned Atkins will be bringing back the language of SB1 and trying to pass it again. Fong said it will take everyone who previously opposed the bill to stand united if there is to be any hope of derailing the efforts. Arambula said he was pleased to see Newsom stood up for the Valley despite a great deal of pressure and vetoed the bill. Mathis urged everyone to work hard to build alliances and stand firm. The time to fight this is now, not after it’s been resubmitted to the legislature. He noted that even as powerful an entity as Metropolitan Water District of Southern California couldn’t fight SB1 alone.
There does appear to be a coalition of big corporate enviros, neopagans and totalitarian leftists hell bent on removing ag from the state. But there are also people of good will and common sense out there who will stand by agriculture if they are approached properly.
The next bill discussed was SB559 by Hurtado. There are portions of the Friant Kern Canal between Porterville and the Kern County line that have been severely impacted by subsidence from over drafting the groundwater. The canal’s capacity has been reduced just when SGMA forces the need for more surface water. The price tag to repair this is a chicken feed $400 million compared to the costs of lost productively downstream of the damage. By the way; the numbers of these bills are significant. I’ve been told each year’s SB1 is the special, pet piece of legislation for the senate pro tem. That’s why it’s number one. SB 559 carries the telephone area code where a great deal of the FKC travels through. Hurtado is from Sanger and did buck the trend in presenting this bill. The opposition is the FKC is a federal facility and that soured some on putting state tax dollars to work. However, the construction costs of the canal have long been paid off by the growers and communities on the Friant system who benefit from it. That should make a big difference. The feds loaned the money to build it and it’s been paid off. Now it is a canal in California, paid for by Californians, delivering California water to Californians.
Grove stated she believes this time around SB559 will pass the state senate. Arambula agreed the state needs to kick in some funds to help with its water infrastructure. Fong warned about the fluctuation of the state’s coffers. He said the budget is morphed by the revenue progressions and project funding is often a matter of timing as much as merit. He said the state’s budget hopscotches; I took it to mean from one shinny object to the next. Having a priority for long-term investments would be a much better way of providing for the citizens’ needs. Mathis said he is working on Assembly Constitutional Amendment Three that will change the law to include allocating two percent of the General Fund revenue to water supply and infrastructure bonds. He said this will, “recession proof” water projects.
Assemblyman Adam Gray of Modesto had introduced a bill (later vetoed by Newsom) that would require the Department of Water Resources to identify above ground storage facilities vulnerable to adverse climate change impacts. This passed the Assembly and Senate. Grove said she likes this bill because it goes beyond just conservation as the end all, be all and gets into the unpopular idea of above ground storage. She said there are those who believe it’s better to grow our food elsewhere. Fong said the opposition to this bill is very united and it’s time for water to flex its muscles. He said water storage isn’t really a partisan issue and much more of a regional one. He believes the needed and necessary alliances can be formed and maintained. Mathis agreed saying those super-justice groups; social justice, enviro justice and any such group that tries to elevate itself above justice – are relentless.
Arambula has tried to pass legislation that would make the state recognize recharge as a beneficial use. It’s almost unbelievable but there are forces who would rather see the water run out to sea with no beneficial use at all than allow it to be recharged. I’ve heard Southern California interests are concerned so much water could be recharged in the Valley as to impact its supplies. In any event that attempt failed and Arambula has put forth AB658. This bill has passed and it will, “. . . authorize a groundwater sustainability agency or local agency to petition for, and the [State Board] board to issue, a conditional temporary change order that authorizes the diversion of surface water to underground storage for beneficial use that advances the sustainability goal of a groundwater basin, as specified.”
Arambula pointed out Don Cameron of Terra Nova Ranch has won awards for on-farm recharge. This bill will clear some of the red tape for that kind of water usage by providing a five-year permit. He also asked if sending fresh water out to sea isn’t a type of desal. I thought that was funny.
New SGMA Laws
The panel was asked about possible changes to SGMA as it transforms from theory into reality. Arambula is chairing the Select Committee on Regional Approaches to Addressing the State’s Water Needs. While there isn’t much happening on the committee’s website it’s hopeful this bunch will help to shed light on what SGMA is doing right and what SGMA is doing wrong for the people of Central California. He said farmers are the best enviros. Fong said to expect more SGMA related legislation and he thinks it would be good to tie water infrastructure to SGMA. Grove said to watch for a continued push to get recharge declared a beneficial use. Mathis said with many of the Groundwater Sustainability Plans topping 1,000 pages expect to see some confusion. Also, expect the NGOs to try to tie in some endangered species into an effort to use SGMA against farmers.
Fresno grower and ACWA Ag Committee Chair Bill Diedrich asked the panelists about funding an annual $130 million need the Valley faces with water infrastructure. Fong said for that to happen the state legislature would have to adopt a process to assess and prioritize spending with established criteria. This would take away at least in part the public trough. Grove said the enviro justice crowd lobbies hard, much harder than ag. She introduced the takeaway message from the entire day – 90 percent of the fight is showing up. There are rallies in Sacramento all the time where hundreds of people in matching t-shirts show up and crowd the halls of the capitol. Agriculture and the San Joaquin Valley in general needs to get in the fight and stop phoning it in.Mathis said for growers to bring their employees as well. He said emotion carries the debate in Sacramento; bring workers with stories to tell.
Wade Crowfoot is the Secretary of California Natural Resources, a post in the Newsom Administration cabinet. He also worked in San Francisco as an environmental advisor when Newsom was the mayor.
We’ve all seen politicians work a room. I recall a South Valley state Senator who spoke at Friant many years ago. He happened to be a democrat but spoke like a conservative. He laid out an ambitious list of what he was going to do for ag water. He warned there would have to be some compromise as that is the name of the game. As I recall compromise was about the only thing on the list to be followed through on.
Why would I bring this up? Because I have to confess when I think of politicians (and their appointees) from San Francisco I don’t think of friends. I don’t think of traditional American values as I understand them and I certainly don’t think of people with a knowledge or respect of and about our Valley, our way of life and the problems we face. After listening to Crowfoot and considering Newsom’s veto of SB1 I’m going to do my best to set aside my preconceived notions. Full disclosure after his talk I did interview Secretary Crowfoot for KMJ 580am. We got a limited amount of time to talk in the parking lot and I can say no matter what else may happen in the future – Crowfoot impressed me as a gentleman. I’m optimistic to see a much more balanced approach to dealing with ag coming from the Newsom administration than I did from Brown.
Crowfoot told us he’d been in Kern County learning about oil and water. I’ve heard he visited the Chevron seepage sight where he asked pertinent questions. I’ve also heard the situation there doesn’t carry half the ecological heft of what naturally washes up on the beaches at Santa Barbara all the time.
Like Grove and the elected officials before him Crowfoot advocated bringing the story to Sacramento. He echoed the story about interest groups wearing matching clothing and lining the hallways. The workers are the best story tellers there are and bring the most compelling emotional depth.
Before the election political pundits and prognosticators often favored Antonio Villaraigosa over Newsom because of the idea Newsom didn’t have the statewide connections needed and particularly in Sacramento. Well, now we know he had enough to get elected. However, those talking heads favoring Newsom said he’d have to govern differently than the traditional democrat holding the reins to everything and will have to find new connections. That may be why Newsom has been building a presence in the Valley. He’s visited more since announcing his candidacy for governor than Brown did in his entire term. Or it could be as Crowfoot says, Newsom cares about the Valley. Assemblyman Gray said the same thing when speaking before a trade group a couple of months ago.
Crowfoot said Newsom has a water agenda and it’s polarizing and complicated but the governor wants it done. He said it is a priority as well as accomplishing the Voluntary Agreements between the State Board and the tributary rivers. The modernization of infrastructure is on the table; the Friant Kern Canal, the California Aqueduct and the Delta Mendota Canal are all viable and necessary portions of the state’s water supply. Newsom has called for a new California Water Portfolio and is in favor of cutting tape for recharge and water transfers. He realizes improved infrastructure is vital for this to happen.
As part of the Governor’s California Water Portfolio a San Joaquin Valley Water Blueprint is being developed and it is receiving attention in Sacramento. Crowfoot asked if fallowing becomes necessary how can the state help? He knows the knob the State Board controls is through Delta flows and that crashes into SGMA. He sees the VAs subject to CEQA and lawsuits but he said Newsom absolutely understands the future of the state depends on water. He said another large infrastructure need will be in the Delta. He said the levees are too low for sea level rise and too weak for earthquakes.
During the question portion the discussion included the difference between urban and ag needs are small when it comes to subsidence on the main California canals and it is going to cost an estimated $2 billion to get everything in shape. The groups driving the push for SB1 are the same groups against the VAs. The question of NGOs signing on to the VAs isn’t answered yet. Keeping the biological opinions on the Delta re-consultation apolitical was urged. Crowfoot said he knows SGMA is in transition and wants to know what the state can do to help.
At the end of Crowfoot’s talk Hastey said he hasn’t seen anyone from the previous administrations speak as openly and passionately as Crowfoot for supporting water in the Valley.
Delta View Water Association
The Delta View Water Association’s meeting drew concerned growers and others to the truly stunning DG Bar Horse Barn which would be better described as a world class equestrian facility. It is also home place for DVWA Chairman Tony deGroot. His father came from Holland and started a dairy farm but also loved to bake. The “clubhouse” of the show arena featured enough commercial bakery equipment to open a store. deGroot began with the proceedings with a prayer of
Lsupplication asking the Lord Jesus for wisdom. deGroot told those gathered there was a plan proposed to build a distribution system from the St. Johns River through the area but landowners rejected the project on costs. That may appear short sighted wearing today’s glasses but at the time the expense might have been larger than could have been borne. It was a judgement call much like what growers and landowners will be asked to make now.
Again there were about 70 folks gathered that Thursday afternoon to learn about DVWA. Johnny Gaily of Visalia has been instrumental in forming the organization and serves as its General Manager. He introduced the next speaker.
The Kaweah Sub Basin is divided into three GSAs; East Kaweah, Mid Kaweah and Greater Kaweah. Greater Kaweah GSA Executive Director Eric Osterling gave the GSA overview and update saying as of now the safe yield appears to be .82 a/f if only native water is used. Osterling explained how the water in the GKGSA was divided into three “buckets”; Native – rainfall and mountain recharge, Foreign – water from the Friant Kern Canal and exported from outside the sub basin and Salvaged – water from the Kaweah and St. Johns Rivers that would not have remained in the area without dams.
SGMA didn’t allow much time to prepare. Denmark studied 10-years before embarking on its version of SGMA. Arizona, right across the border, spent five-years studying the situation before writing its groundwater laws. SGMA gave us two-years to form GSAs and two-years to write GSPs. Osterling said there was a tremendous amount of data to be gathered just to get to where we are now. The GSA had to use Google Earth to find some of the wells in the area. Osterling said it appears there is a 78,000 a/f overdraft in the area that could require 25,000-30,000 acres of fallowing without further supplies.
Don Mills is Chair of the GKGSA and the Kaweah Delta Water Conservation District. He said when SGMA was first released he spoke with the venerable Visalia engineer Dick Schafer. I believe Mills said Schafer told him there were 617 things the basin will have to do to get right with SGMA and they could only afford a handful. Where can the people in the Kaweah Sub Basin get more water? There could be some extra flood flows on the Kings River but you’d better believe every drop from every river in the Valley that can be utilized will be. Tulare Irrigation District may have some extra water during wet years it could sell. No one is giving water away with SGMA in place. Osterling had spoken about what happens if a GSA can’t comply with SGMA. He said the State Board will step in and impose draconian conditions on groundwater pumpers. Conditions that will prove financially costly. Mills told the audience now that DVWA has been formed it will be added to the list of qualified water recipients the KDWCD keeps for distributing extra Kaweah River water.
Gailey spoke last. He spoke briefly about six proposed projects that could help the DVWA: Delta View canal, Cross Creek layoff basin, Mill Creek sinking basin, Cross Creek/Lakeland Canal sinking basin and the Lakeland Canal permanent pumping station in conjunction with Corcoran ID. The future is still uncertain on these projects. It will take money of course. The most likely way outside of grants is land assessments. That could require a 218 Election which often costs upwards of $100,000 to enact. Gailey assured the folks grants are being looked into and mitigation is the preferred alternative to land fallowing and retirement.
The Delta View Water Association is a non-profit corporation formed to help the growers in white areas deal with the restriction of groundwater pumping under SGMA. It has a modest dues structure of $6 per acre with a cap of $10k.
So there you have it. Two vastly different organizations; ACWA and DVWA. Different connections, clout and financial reach. But both their members have to deal with SGMA and Sacramento. Hopefully there are enough leaders with wisdom and good will on all sides to get the job done. I realize this is a very long report so if you’ve read this far I humbly thank you.
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ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. Copyright 2019 by Don A. Wright