SACRAMENTO, Calif. — After decades of battling farmers in court over how much water they can take from California’s rivers and streams, some state lawmakers want to try something different: use taxpayer dollars to buy out the farmers.
A proposal in the state Senate would spend up to $1.5 billion to purchase ‘superior water rights’ that allow farmers to take as much water as needed from state rivers and streams to grow their crops. If state officials had these rights, they could leave the water in the rivers for the benefit of endangered species of salmon and other fish.
California has been mired in drought for most of the past two decades, prompting scrutiny of the state’s complex water system and how it could be modified to ensure a stable supply during exceptionally droughts – including a separate state proposal that would pay farmers to grow fewer crops to save water.
Current readings show about 98% of the state is experiencing severe drought conditions as California heads into summer months that rarely produce significant rainfall. Many areas have begun restricting water use for homeowners, primarily by reducing outdoor use such as lawn irrigation. And farmers have seen their allocation from the two main state-owned water systems reduced – in some cases down to zero.
Legally, all water in California is government property. But farmers have “water rights” that allow them to abstract water for agriculture. Farmers have used these 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 country’s fruits, nuts and vegetables.
But siphoning all that water has also 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 fought for years over state and federal rules governing how much water can be diverted for agriculture, which uses far more water than any other sector of the economy.
Now that California has a record budget surplus of nearly $100 billion, Democrats in the state Senate have proposed using up to $1.5 billion to buy superior water rights – either in buying the land associated with the rights, buying only the right itself, or putting an easement on the land that requires the water to be used for fish and other wildlife.
The proposal is part of budget negotiations between lawmakers and Governor Gavin Newsom’s administration that are expected to wrap up by the end of this month.
“It’s like taking a page from corporate America and buying back shares,” said Sen. Bob Wieckowski, a Democrat who represents the San Francisco Bay Area and chairman of a budget subcommittee overseeing environmental expenditure.
Although $1.5 billion seems like a lot of money, it wouldn’t buy that much water. Regulators measure water in “acre-feet,” defined as enough water to cover 1 acre (0.4 hectares) of land to a depth of 1 foot (30 centimeters). That’s the equivalent of 325,851 gallons (1.2 million liters).
A typical household uses 1 acre foot of water each year. Farmers collectively use up to 35 million acre-feet of water each year, according to the Water Education Foundation.
The $1.5 billion would be enough to buy around 200,000 acre feet of water, based on an average price of $7,500 per acre foot, according to Tom Birmingham, chief executive of Westlands Water District, the largest agricultural water district of the country.
Still, Birmingham says the idea “makes a huge amount of sense” because “it’s a means by which conflict can be avoided”.
Right now, the only way to get more water flowing into rivers and streams is to get state and federal regulators to change the rules. They can do this by requiring more water to remain in rivers and streams, but that means less water for farmers. These rule changes often result in lawsuits, which can take a decade or more to resolve, said Lester Snow, former secretary of the California Natural Resources Agency and regional director of the US Bureau of Reclamation.
“We need a way to act much faster. And I think acquiring water rights for that purpose is one of the ways to do that,” he said. “With climate change, we just don’t have that kind of weather.”
For this to work, farmers would have to voluntarily sell their precious water rights – which Birmingham says shouldn’t be a problem. Many farmers try to sell their water rights to the Westlands Water District every year, Birmingham said.
“For many farmers… their children just aren’t interested in continuing to farm,” Birmingham said.
But state Sen. Brian Dahle, a Republican gubernatorial candidate whose family has farmed in California for 92 years, said the only reason farmers would be willing to sell is if state officials are pushing for bankruptcy with binding regulations.
“It makes my blood boil. It’s ridiculous,” Dahle told his colleagues during a legislative hearing on the proposal. “You force them into a corner where they have no other choice.”
John McManus, executive director of the Golden State Salmon Association, said that, as with any legislative proposal, “the devil will be in the details.” He said he would like to see rules ensuring that any additional water purchased by the state will stay in the rivers and not be taken by someone else with water rights further downstream.
But he hopes the program will work because he said there are about six species of native fish that “are on life support right now because we don’t have enough water flowing through the delta.” .
“So anything that can be done to address this issue is appreciated,” he said.