California Groundwater Bills Passed/Future of Farms and Food

In the face of several years of low rainfall and  historic drought, California signed three water bills into law this week which will regulate groundwater pumping.   The state’s water supply is no longer adequate in the face of drought to satisfy urban, farming and environmental needs.  The bills will require individual regions/counties to implement measures appropriate to manage groundwater.  These measures could include well drilling moratoriums,  metering agricultural wells to determine pumping volume  and charging for water.  It is unclear how these measures will be implemented and what the impact will be on our  small pastured farmstead dairy/cheese business.

Although it will be some time before these measures will be implemented in the less critical water areas of the State, the actual implementation and maintenance costs to farms are not clear.  As are most of our small farmer colleagues, we are currently strapped by extremely high overheads typical of doing business in California compounded with additional financial demands brought on by drought.  Energy, insurance, taxes, inspection fees and goods and services are among the highest priced in the nation.   Hay is in short supply due to decreased crop volume with skyrocketing demand and prices reaching unprecedented highs . Due to lack of rain needed to sustain pastures and forage areas, our state’s livestock are out of feed and depend on purchased hay at current rising prices.  Flocks and herds are being reduced or sold.  Current profit margins are marginal and many operate at a loss.

The possible financial impact of the new groundwater regulations are of concern to our small farm and business. We farm organically, grow grain hay, make award winning cheeses and provide a high welfare environment for our pastured goat herd.  The venture will no longer be sustainable without profit.

Possibilities coming down the pike include installing outflow meters on our well and  being assessed a fee for the water.  In that event, we would have a well we paid to dig and case, in addition to the cost of the pumps, piping and shouldering the burden of cost for the outflow meters and  maintenance therein. It appears the State has the authority to “claim” a well if they deem it necessary (the eminent domaine card). I can’t imagine we would be reimbursed for those costs.  If the water winds up being priced on the same scale as our electricity, it will be beyond our small farm/business to pay.  Additonal fees could be levied in the form of permits and district fees.  Also of concern is California is not a fiscally solvent state and has been running in the red for many years, is a bottomless pit of need regarding revenue, and prioritizes social program interests over agricultural needs (food production).

I feel the bills were not ready for signature and needed to be sent back for further thought and debate. The drought was an excuse to cram this legislation through without citizen input or vote.  Comprehensive approaches to water issues in California are needed and have been needed for decades to address all interests.  The dire circumstances we face currently due to drought may have been mitigated  if some measures were enacted decades ago.   Ground water regulation is needed, however the installation of meters on all ag wells alone will not solve California’s water problems.  We need to increase above ground water storage with new dam projects as well as possibly increasing storage in existing dams.  Limiting population in the most critical water areas is essential as well as recycling and desalinization which at the very least could be implemented in low rainfall years to conserve aquifer water reserves.

It’s heartbreaking  to see young orchards and crops dying in the fields as well as flocks and herds being reduced or sold.  Some of which took decades to develop and in many instances have been passed along through generations.  In the same state we see citizens purchasing water to avoid palatial landscaping from perishing.

California is a state of contrasts and competing interests.  Water availability and price will determine the farming practices, volume and ownership of the State’s food supply.  I’m the sixth consecutive generation of my family to farm in California.  I’m hoping for the best.

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