News23ABC In-Depth


Farmers worry water-rights proposal could affect food supply

Posted: 4:19 PM, Jun 13, 2022
Updated: 2022-06-14 01:48:03-04
Farm Field Irrigation, Bakersfield (FILE)

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (KERO) — As drought continues to be a concern across California and Kern County, there is a new proposal in the state senate that could spend up to $1.5 billion to buy back the water rights that allow farmers to take as much water as they need from the state's rivers and streams to grow their crops.

After decades of fighting farmers in court over how much water they can take out of California's rivers and streams, some state lawmakers want to try something different: use taxpayer money to buy out farmers. It comes at a time when the state's drought tracker says that almost 98 percent of California is currently experiencing yet another severe drought, which is resulting in low river levels.

Senator Bob Wieckowski and a group of other Democratic senators say the proposal comes as climate change is impacting hydrology throughout California.

According to the Associated Press, "legally, all of the water in California is the property of the government. But farmers have 'water rights' that let them take water for agriculture. Farmers have used those rights — governed by a complicated system based on seniority and other factors — to turn California's Central Valley into an agricultural powerhouse that provides much of the nation's fruits, nuts and vegetables. But siphoning off all that water also has disrupted the fragile ecosystem of the San Joaquin/Sacramento River delta, the largest estuary on the West Coast and home to endangered salmon and other fish. Environmental groups and farmers have battled for years over state and federal rules governing just how much water can be diverted for agriculture, which uses far more water than any other sector of the economy."

Now, with California having a record budget surplus of nearly $100 billion, Democrats in the state Senate have proposed using up to $1.5 billion to buy senior water rights — by either buying the land associated with the rights, buying just the right itself, or putting an easement on the land that requires the water to be used for fish and other fauna and flora.

“It's like we're taking a page from corporate America and we're buying back stock,” State Sen. Wieckowski told the AP.

For this to work, farmers would have to voluntarily sell their valuable water rights — something Birmingham says shouldn't be a problem. Lots of farmers try to sell their water rights to Westlands Water District every year, Birmingham said.

“For many farmers ... their children simply are not interested in continuing to farm,” Birmingham said.

However, California farmers are saying that the buyback of rights can heavily affect their crop productivity.

“To buy those water rights and permanently dry up that land at a time when we don't have enough food in the world. Those that live in urban areas as well as farmers, have done tremendous things and will continue to do more but it is a hardening demand while we’ve done nothing to increase our water supply,” says Danny Merkley, the director of water resources for the California Farm Bureau.

Merkley says that as a result of the proposal the impact that it could have economically also contributes to a loss of food supply. He adds that the state of California grows two-thirds of the tree fruits and nuts in the United States and about half of the vegetables that are consumed.

23ABC In-Depth


$2 Billion to Rebalance State Water Supply and Water Rights. Climate change is impacting hydrology throughout California. Prolonged drought conditions dramatically impact the viability of our fish and wildlife populations. While there are multiple stressors, the diversion of flow for agricultural and urban uses has outstripped what the ecosystem can handle.

California must consider new approaches to help us reduce water demand to improve freshwater flows, enhance habitat conditions, and provide clean drinking water. The Senate’s proposal establishes a voluntary water reconciliation program, helping to rebalance the state’s water supply and water rights system, rather than relying on the current regulatory processes that have failed to provide adequate flows for decades and do not adequately anticipate changing conditions.

The proposed water rights reconciliation framework prioritizes acquisition of water tor deuce the impact of drought and to enhance stream and river conditions. The program uses multi-benefit water management strategies (e.g., protection of instream flows, sustainable groundwater management/recharge, floodplain restoration, and habitat enhancement) and integrates existing objectives in the Administration’s Water Resilience Portfolio, Natural and Working Lands Climate Smart Strategy, and the Pathways to 30x30 Report.

The Senate’s proposal recognizes that:

  1. California’s water rights are over-allocated and climate change has created an urgent need to protect and enhance flows.
  2. A science-based approach must be utilized to prioritize and measure ecological outcomes.
  3. The State Water Resources Control Board (SWRCB) must ensure that any water protected stays protected, as well as the importance of designating an environmental water master to more transparently track and report on ecological conditions in California rivers.

Key conditions for success include:

  • A determination by SWRCB and the Department of Fish and Wildlife (DFW) that a streamflow enhancement program — and specific minimal flow conditions — would make a demonstrable improvement in habitat conditions.
  • Ensuring that investments align with existing approved fish and wildlife conservation plans including the Central Valley Joint Venture Plan, Klamath Basin recovery plans, and federal salmon recovery plans.
  • Utilizing an environmental water master to certify that the projects would improve habitat conditions.
  • Taking emergency actions to address climate change and improve habitat conditions for both listed and candidate species.
  • Evaluating the impacts on disadvantaged communities, jobs, and local economies. Mitigation of those impacts are eligible for funding under the program.

The Senate Water Rights Proposal contains four elements:

  • Fund permanent acquisition of senior water rights in highly stressed watersheds with the water dedicated to the environment or to drinking water supplies for disadvantaged communities. This will entail purchasing land or easements that allow the land to be converted to low water use--habitat, grazing or other guaranteed reductions in water use. Includes both coastal and valley. Acquisitions prioritized based on environmental needs, maximizing benefits.
  • Strengthen water rights quantification and enforcement at SWRCB. Currently the state does not have a reliable quantification of water rights or the ability to effectively enforce.
  • Grants to SGMA agencies to repurpose farm lands to lower water use to balance groundwater supply and demand. This is the groundwater equivalent of the #1.
  • Mitigate third party impacts. Taking land out of production creates local and regional impacts that need to be mitigated through grants.

Program Implementation. The Senate’s proposal is a voluntary program to purchase water along prioritized stream segments. Priority is given to permanent acquisitions through land purchases. The program is administered by the Wildlife Conservation Board (WCB), in consultation with SWRCB and DFW. An advisory board, the California Water Trust, will be established to advise program implementation. The advisory board will include members that represent disadvantaged communities, tribes, and environmental organizations. The advisory board will approve program guidelines and priorities. The goal is to retire water use incrementally from multiple water uses in a basin and across wide geographies to help ensure that no region or area served by a water agency is disproportionately impacted. Investments in flow augmentation will be verifiable and result in measurable improvements in flow, temperature and/or water quality. Further, investments will not replace regulatory requirements. Specific program objectives include prioritizing water acquisitions that improve state and federal wildlife refuge conditions, improve instream habitat for fish, and provide clean drinking water for communities.

Funding Allocations:

$400 million for the Sacramento River and tributaries, including:

  • Funding to acquire water, prioritizing additional flows to enhance habitat, land retirement, floodplain restoration, provide water for state and federal refuges, sustainable groundwater management/recharge, and conditional multi-year water lease agreements. Strong oversight and enforcement mechanisms are included to assure that water purchased with public dollars is providing public trust benefits.
  • Funding to measure streamflow, including gages and other reporting devices, that improve understanding of flow conditions.

$500 million for coastal water sheds, including:

  • Funding for multi-benefit water management projects including sustainable groundwater management/recharge, floodplain restoration, and stream flow enhancement. Funding is prioritized to watersheds with an approved recovery plan. Funding may be used for short- and long-term acquisitions.
  • Funding for monitoring including stream gages.

$100 million for the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, including:

  • Funding for voluntary projects that create wetland habitat and improve flood protection. This program shall be designed to provide multiple benefits for ecosystem restoration, including refuge water supplies and flow enhancement actions beyond those included in Phase 1 of the Bay-Delta Water Quality Control Plan Update. The program will use the Delta Independent Science Board to provide monitoring and oversight.

$100 million for the San Joaquin River and tributaries, including:

  • Funding for voluntary projects that create wetland habitat, floodplain restoration, sustainable groundwater management/recharge, and provide water for state and federal refuges. This program shall be designed to provide multiple benefits for ecosystem restoration, including refuge water supplies and flow enhancement actions beyond those included in Phase 1 of the Bay-Delta Water Quality Control Plan Update

$200 million to acquire clean drinking water for disadvantaged communities.

$100 million to improve water management science and agency coordination, including:

  • Funding to improve scientific evaluation and information sharing between SWRCB, DFW, the California Water Commission, the Delta Independent Science Board, and the Department of Water Resources (DWR).
  • Funding to SWRCB, DFW, and WCB for program implementation, and to establish a statewide environmental water master program.

$100 million to mitigate the impacts to local communities, including:

  • Funding to evaluate and reduce the impacts of the program on disadvantaged communities, jobs, and local economies.

$500 million to Department of Conservation (DOC) for acquisition and repurposing of lands to implement the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act.

  • The Senate’s proposal calls for increasing funds for DOC’s Multibenefit Land Repurposing Program by $500 million to fund groundwater sustainability projects that reduce groundwater use, repurpose irrigated agricultural land, and provide wildlife habitat