Farm, business groups call for action on water projects

Agriculture and business groups are imploring Gov. Gavin Newsom and the Legislature to set clear goals for boosting water storage and supplies as the drought threatens to cripple California’s food, energy and housing sectors.

“Our existing water system can no longer deliver the water necessary to sustain the world’s fifth-largest economy,” the California Farm Bureau and nearly two dozen farm and business groups wrote in a June 14 letter to the state’s executive and legislative branches.

“California must establish a clear target to increase its surface water supply to meet current and future needs for human consumption and a growing economy,” said the letter, whose signatories included California Farm Bureau President Jamie Johansson.

Danny Merkley, Farm Bureau’s director of water resources, said Farm Bureau signed the letter because “it is time to sound the alarm.”

“It has been seven-and-a-half years since the voters of California overwhelmingly passed Proposition 1 with $2.7 billion for the public-benefit portion of new water storage, and yet not $1 has yet to be spent on the construction of new storage,” Merkley said. “If Newsom is sincere about California’s water resilience, he will work with the Legislature to get funding out the door right now to upgrade our aging water infrastructure for today’s 21st-century realities. We cannot conserve our way out of it.”

The coalition contended that the state’s current strategy is to reduce supplies and ask people to do more with less. “As a result,” the letter said, “we are merely managing economic decline.”

The letter cited a 2021 study from the University of California, Merced, that found 385,000 acres of farmland were fallowed last year on account of a lack of water. That led to a $1.1 billion loss to farmers and the loss of 8,750 agricultural jobs; overall, agriculture and related sectors lost $1.7 billion and more than 14,600 full- and part-time jobs, according to the report.

The letter also cited a 2020 study from UC Berkeley that examined the effects of the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act on farmers and ranchers. That report concluded that as many as 1 million acres of San Joaquin Valley farmland may be fallowed over two to three decades because of restrictions on surface-water supplies and groundwater pumping.

“This amount of fallowing is approximately one-fifth of all acres currently under cultivation in the valley,” the report’s authors wrote. “The farm revenue loss associated with this fallowing is $7.2 billion per year.” In addition, about 42,000 jobs will disappear, including on-farm employment and agricultural service sector jobs, the report stated.

The coalition letter noted that, in light of the economic peril presented by groundwater regulations, the state Department of Water Resources allocated $100 million to help groundwater sustainability agencies implement projects that comply with the law and assist affected communities.

“We need more, significantly more, investment in this area to ensure communities can adequately transition,” the coalition letter stated.

The governor’s May revision to his budget proposal recommended $2 billion for water funding, but only $500 million over several years for storage. The Senate’s budget proposal calls for $7.5 billion over three years, but the letter noted that $2.5 billion of this is directed toward environmental uses, “not by making new water available but by reducing the use of land for agricultural purposes.”

“The governor and Legislature must immediately act to change this trajectory and avoid pending economic disaster before the opportunity to revamp our water supply infrastructure has passed,” the letter stated.

Other signatories of the letter included the Valley Ag Water Coalition; Western Growers; Agricultural Council of California; the California League of Food Producers; the California Business Roundtable; and the California Manufacturers and Technology Association.

(Kevin Hecteman is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. He may be contacted at [email protected].)

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