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Farmers eye 'historic' California water bond legislation with hope and skepticism

by Rand Green | November 11, 2009
The Associated Press called it a "historic water deal." California Assembly member Jean Fuller (R-Bakersfield) called it a miracle. California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger called it "the most comprehensive water infrastructure package & in the history of California."

But will the $11.1 billion water bond measure, which was signed by Mr. Schwarzenegger Nov. 9 and which is scheduled to go on the November 2010 ballot in California, actually deliver the promised construction of new water storage and conveyance infrastructure that California so desperately needs to provide reliable supplies of water to San Joaquin Valley farmers and Southern California cities?

Many farmers in the San Joaquin Valley are hopeful but skeptical, and many environmental groups are still determined to stop the building of any new dams or canals in spite of the new legislation.

Furthermore, the legislation does virtually nothing to help farmers get back any of the water that has been taken away from them in the last two years, forcing hundreds of thousands of once-productive acres to lie fallow and putting some 40,000 people on the valley's west side out of work.

Denis Prosperi, a grape and almond grower in Madera, CA, and chairman of Families Protecting the Valley, said that the water bill provides "a chance" of getting the needed infrastructure. "I've got to admit, having a chance is better than no chance," he said.

California voters, who are already unhappy over the state's fiscal crisis, may not even approve the bond. But if it does pass, Mr. Prosperi expects environmentalists to block any building of new infrastructure in court or to "tie it up" with environmental studies.

The bond could well wind up putting the state another $11 billion in debt without building any storage or conveyance and without giving agriculture any more water, according to Mr. Prosperi. But whether the bond passes or not, environmentalists already have achieved much of what they were seeking in the legislation, including state control over ground water as well as surface water, he said. "First they take a way your surface water, and then they & come in and control your ground water."

Unless "the people of California and the political leaders tell the environmental groups, 'Look, we are going to build something whether you like it or not,'" it will probably never happen, he said, noting that there have been water bonds before in California and billions of dollars have been spent without so much as "a pack of cement" being opened.

Furthermore, "I think there is a consensus" among people in agriculture, "even among the people who are saying how great this is, that it does nothing to solve the short-term problem," and there are many farmers who "are going to be broke in the next 24 months" if something is not done to restore their water, he said.

Assembly member Fuller, who is vice chairman of the California Assembly's Water, Parks & Recreation Committee and who is also on the Agriculture Committee, was much more optimistic, but still with some caveats. In a telephone interview with The Produce News immediately following the signing of the bill for which she was present, Ms. Fuller, who worked hard for passage of a bill that would include the needed infrastructure, said that farmers, farmworkers and residents of Central California and Southern California will "absolutely ... be beneficiaries of increased water supply due to the money for dams and infrastructure."

It has been a long and bitter fight, and all parties had to give up something, but "I am absolutely awed" that the bill made it through the state legislature, she said. "It was a miracle that everyone came together."

One provision in the bill, Ms. Fuller said, is that it includes safeguards to prevent the legislature from coming back later, after the bonds have been sold, and deciding to spend the money for something else. It also contains assurances of transparency, oversight and accountability, she said.

But she does expect "squabbling" among the various interests as the project moves forward, and she expects that "it is going to take a long time" before any construction is completed. Meanwhile, farmers need water for next year's crops, and to get their water restored, federal law needs to be "changed, fixed, amended or waived," she said. "Or we need to just turn on the pumps" in the Sacramento River Delta that were ordered shut down by a federal judge, preventing water from Northern California from reaching San Joaquin Valley farmers. "The feds hold the key to that," she said.

The legislative package that included the water bond bill is "clearly a step forward," said Barry Bedwell, president of the California Tree Fruit Agreement in Fresno, CA. "The reality is we still have a long way to go to see if it can and will produce all that we had hoped for." There will be a lot of work required to get he bond "approved by the people of California," he said. But "we all understand that we need more plumbing in this state."

If approved by voters, the measure will provide "a pathway" to building the needed infrastructure, but "I think what is concerning to all of us is the very different interpretations of what these bills can do and what they should do," he said.

Given "the very difficult dynamics of California's legislature, this is at least a step in the right direction," he said.