The swirl of controversy surrounding water use in California shows no signs of abating, as farmers and ranchers face a rising tide of tighter legislation and regulations fostering higher costs, plus continued litigation.

Water experts Gary W. Sawyers, Don Bransford, and John Hewitt gave their interpretations of the situation at the Spring Outlook Forum held recently in Sacramento by the California Chapter of the American Society of Farm Managers and Rural Appraisers.

Fresno water-law attorney Gary W. Sawyers warned that several bills in the State Legislature could have far-reaching effects on the administration of agricultural water use. One example is S.B. 820, introduced by Senator Sheila Kuehl (D-Los Angeles).

Sawyers, who represents public and private water delivery agencies, as well as private farming interests and agricultural lenders, said S. B. 820 envisions a "rebuttable presumption of waste" concerning water use that would arise when any person fails it implement "cost-effective water conservation practices."

Failure to implement those measures, he said, could result in the loss of water rights, and the burden of proof would shift to water users.

The bill, he explained, "would also require every person, including water districts, pumping more than 25 acre-feet of groundwater annually to file a notice of extraction with the State Water Resources Control Board (SWRCB)." This, he added, would require farmers to install meters on pumps.

"Most likely a prelude to groundwater regulation, this provision of the bill could increase costs for farmers pumping groundwater due to the SWRCB’s costly filing fees," along with an increase, to be funded by fees, in the board’s staff.

Diversion statement

The bill would also require filing of a statement of diversion and create other regulatory and administrative burdens that have not previously existed for pre-1914 water rights holders.

The legislation also would require water districts having adopted groundwater management plans to update them before Dec. 31, 2008 and every five years thereafter. Sawyers noted that under current law, once a groundwater management plan is in place, there is no need to update it.

Sawyers said other pending legislation would end landowner voting in water agencies and eliminate the requirement that irrigation district directors own land in the district.

"These bills, which are driven by civil rights concern, would radically change the voting in many water agencies and turn control over to residents rather than landowners."

While they are subtle and may not attract much attention, these bills are getting some traction in the legislature, he added.

"If you look down the road and envision water agencies that are governed not by landowners but by the residents, that could have significant impact on how water is allocated."

Another panelist, Colusa rice grower-activist Don Bransford said he is convinced his and other farmer’s water rights are being threatened and he believes in being "engaged" in the controversy to protect the rights.

Bransford, who is also president of the 150,000-acre Glenn-Colusa Irrigation district, said the district has made four major water transfers in the past 10 years.

"First, they were made to meet the economic needs of growers and second, almost as importantly, they were to address statewide objectives. When you live in the north state, where the bulk of the water is, you feel tremendous pressure to make water available, one way or another. If you don’t somebody is going to come and get it."

Priorities listed

Priorities in the transfers are first, agriculture, second, environmental purchases, third, water agencies north of the delta, and fourth, water agencies south of the delta.

"I think we are going to see short-term transfers continue. There will be transfers with fallowing, groundwater, or a combination of both. But we are a long way away from long-term transfers, and our people are uncomfortable entering into multi-year contracts, because once they sign a contract, the water rights are gone," Bransford said.

He said transfers are no substitute for storage. "So we are actively engaged in trying to build some storage, either north or south of the delta, that will improve the state system."

Although the district’s growers traditionally have been fearful of losing water rights, he said he expects the fear will wane over time. "Attitudes are changing because with the transfers comes a comfort level that people are genuine in their respect of water rights, and the state system will break down unless we respect those rights."

The district, he said, recently signed a 40-year contract for first-priority rights on Sacramento River water, but it anticipates the National Resources Defense Council will challenge the pact in court.

"We will likely spend millions of dollars defending this contract. If we lose our water, our land values will drop precipitously."

Panel member John Hewitt, attorney in the California Farm Bureau Federation’s natural resources and environmental division, said agricultural "waivers" regulating farm waste-water discharge being adopted under state regional water quality control boards for monitoring are largely waivers in name only and still have obligations.

"Waivers are another fee that landowners are soon going to be faced with. Most of them are practices that are currently being done on the ground today, so in many cases they are documentation exercises," he said.

Waiver permits

Farmers and ranchers in most regions of the state can apply for annual waiver permits in a watershed coalition group, at $100 plus 12 cents per acre, or individually, at $100 per farm plus 30 cents per acre.

To meet monitoring regulations, first-year start-up costs for a 180-acre farm are estimated at $7,000 to $15,000. Afterward, annual costs are estimated at $6,000 to $8,000 per farm to meet the requirements.

"When I look at these increases in obligations, regulations, fees, and water quality demands, I wonder if, in the future, our irrigated lands will be treated like underground (fuel) tanks are today," Hewitt said.