Monday, November 23, 2015
Tensions, threats as California’s new groundwater law takes shape
By Ryan Sabalow
HANFORD – Drive the farm roads of sparsely populated Kings County, and it’s hard to miss them: clusters of pipes, cylinders and electrical boxes jutting from the soil every few hundred yards or so, in almost every direction. These are the groundwater pumps that ensure water soaks the vast fields of tomatoes, corn, alfalfa, cherries, almonds and walnuts even when the ditches run dry.
They’ve helped make agriculture the single largest industry in Kings County, where crop values actually have grown by $753 million during California’s drought.
So maybe it shouldn’t have surprised County Supervisor Doug Verboon, who owns a small walnut farm, that he got a hostile reception at a recent gathering after he suggested the county impose restrictions on drilling new wells and selling groundwater to other counties.
“Can you afford a bodyguard?” he recalled one grower asking him. It was bluster, Verboon said. The real fighting is going to take place in front of a judge.
“We’re going to get sued no matter what,” Verboon said.
The tensions in Kings County offer just a taste of what’s expected in cities and towns throughout California’s farm belt over the next few years as local officials work to enact the state’s first-ever groundwater regulations. They are under orders to begin actively managing underground aquifers that for generations have been treated as a private resource, with property owners empowered to dig wells and extract as much water as they wanted without particular regard for their neighbors or government agencies.
But even amid the sobering accounts of dried-up wells, salt-tainted groundwater and collapsing aquifers in California farm country, no one expects regulation will be easy to set up or sell. Instead, the entire process – starting with just who gets to decide how much water can be “sustainably” pumped in a region – is expected to spark lengthy debate and complicated lawsuits. This is particularly true in farm-rich regions such as Kings County, where the groundwater basins are critically overdrawn.
“Based on my experience, the more severe the overdraft – the harder the problem – probably the more likely you’ll end up being in the courts,” said Jeffrey Dunn, an Irvine attorney who specializes in groundwater adjudication cases.
By now, at the tail end of year four of California’s drought, the story of the state’s groundwater woes has been widely chronicled. This year alone, farmers across the state lost nearly 9 million acre-feet of surface water from the state and federal water delivery networks, nearly half their usual supply.
They largely made up for the loss by sinking thousands of new wells and furiously pumping water from below. In the parched San Joaquin Valley, the effects of decades of unregulated groundwater pumping have become more pronounced in the drought. As in much of California, seasonal crops such as cotton and tomatoes have given way to vast orchards of walnuts, pistachios and almonds. These high-demand crops are lucrative, but can’t be fallowed in a drought, leading to more groundwater pumping when surface deliveries are cut.
In some areas, the land is sinking as aquifers are depleted. Portions of the Delta-Mendota Canal, which brings water to much of the San Joaquin Valley, have buckled. NASA researchers found a stretch near the California Aqueduct, the key highway of the State Water Project, that sank 8 inches in four months last year. A spot near Corcoran in Kings County, sank 13 inches in one recent eight-month period.
Saying such conditions posed a threat to the state’s long-term water supply, the Legislature last year passed legislation that imposes sweeping new regulations on groundwater extraction. The laws call for creation of new local agencies with broad powers to restrict pumping and impose penalties for overuse and failing to allow inspections.
Existing state agencies, including the Department of Water Resources and State Water Resources Control Board, are charged with overseeing these local agencies and taking over their programs, if deemed inadequate.
The state is still in the process of finalizing its regulations, but local officials are tasked with making most of the critical decisions about how to create a sustainable system of groundwater use in their region. Questions abound: Who manages the agencies? How will they be funded? How much groundwater can be drawn overall – and how will that be divvied up among individual property owners? Should zoning ordinances be used to limit new wells and the types of crops that can be planted? How is groundwater use tracked? How are violators punished?
The notion of setting limits on groundwater use threatens a business model deeply ingrained in California’s farm economy. Groundwater makes up about 60 percent of all fresh water consumed in California during drought years, and about 40 percent in average years. Given the stakes, a top state groundwater official acknowledged legal challenges are all but inevitable.
“It’s a big state. Probably, unfortunately, there will be litigation,” David Gutierrez, program manager for groundwater sustainability at the Department of Water Resources, recently told the State Board of Food and Agriculture. “Our job is to develop those regulations aside from who’s going to sue who.”
A twisted knot
California’s new groundwater legislation affects 127 basins that regulators have deemed to be medium or high priority because of their importance to the state’s water supplies. The basin management agencies must be formed by 2017. The agencies overseeing the 21 basins that have been deemed critically overdrafted have until 2020 to set up long-term management plans. The rest have until 2022.
The legislation doesn’t specify the makeup of the basin management agencies, other than saying members should be local public officials. An existing entity, such as a water district or county board, could manage a basin, or they could be created from a combination of agencies. Their charge will be to ensure water use in their region is balanced – that what’s pumped out can be replenished over time.
A critical unanswered question is how this process will mesh with long-standing California laws that protect water and property rights.
The new groundwater legislation doesn’t prohibit unhappy water users from filing lawsuits hoping to circumvent the process. Under established water law, property owners can ask a Superior Court judge to settle groundwater disputes through a process known as adjudication, in which the judge ultimately rules on who has a right to how much water. Gov. Jerry Brown signed two bills this fall that aim to streamline the adjudication process and prevent litigants from using the courts to hamstring conservation efforts. But these lengthy, costly legal proceedings are left largely untouched by the new groundwater measures.
Adjudications generally require a judge to untangle the water rights of every well owner in a groundwater basin, whether they are cities, irrigation districts or homeowners. The more wells in the basin, the more twisted the knot for the judge to unravel. Plus, the various factions – down to residential well owners – are allowed to bring in expert witnesses to offer their views on basin boundaries, hydrology and historical water use.
“I think, in most areas, the local water users and districts and counties are thoroughly committed to try come up with a management approach rather than litigation approach,” said Sacramento attorney Kevin O’Brien, who handles water disputes. “Everybody understands the expense and time involved in these groundwater (adjudication) cases, many of which take 10, 15, 20 years to resolve.”
Yet that was exactly the approach that a group of local activists preferred in San Luis Obispo County, when supervisors recently placed unprecedented restrictions on groundwater use. The action followed years of complaints from area landowners about wells drying up because aquifers were overdrafted.
Sue Luft, a retired environmental engineer, and her husband, Karl, experienced it firsthand. In 2004, Luft decided to retire and start a small winery. The couple bought 10 acres in Paso Robles in the heart of the rolling brown hills of San Luis Obispo County’s thriving wine country.
Their well began to fail just three years later. Luft dipped into her family’s retirement savings to drill a new deeper well. It’s pulling from a source so deep that the water that comes up is rank with sulfur, salt and boron. The couple resorted to buying a costly filtration system to make the water safe to drink and for irrigation of their zinfandel grapes.
“Our neighbors all around us have drilled new wells, but immediately next door, the neighbor can’t afford to,” she said. “He’s trucking water. A few of the neighbors are trucking water.”
The county Board of Supervisors took action after studies showed that the groundwater levels below Paso Robles were dropping precipitously as arid pastureland was replanted with vineyards. In 2013, the supervisors passed an ordinance requiring farmers in the Paso Robles basin to offset their groundwater use if they wanted to plant new crops. A landowner, for example, would have to remove an acre of alfalfa if he wanted to plant 3.6 acres of new vineyards to ensure the groundwater demand stayed the same.
Last month, the supervisors voted to make the ordinance countywide – and permanent. Voters in the Paso Robles region will decide in March whether to form a groundwater management district. If the measure passes, they also will choose who would sit on a new board, and whether to use a parcel tax to fund it.
The decisions appeared to put San Luis Obispo County years ahead of most jurisdictions in implementing key goals of the new groundwater legislation. But the county’s efforts almost immediately were undermined. A group of vineyard owners and property-rights activists sued, saying they would rather a judge divvy up the groundwater through an adjudication than allowing local politicians to shape the regulations.
Ryan Newkirk, a sixth-generation Paso Robles farmer, is spearheading the legal case with his mother. He said the restrictions the county has put on groundwater use amount to the “government picking winners and losers” based on faulty assumptions.
“I don’t see a lot of responsibility in the regulation that we’re seeing,” said Newkirk, who grows grapes in the region. “It’s just a kind of a rush to get something done, whether it’s right or not. Whether it’s based in fact or not. The potential for us to be negatively impacted by the regulations is what scares us.”
The adjudication is still likely years from being resolved. Should voters approve the new groundwater agency, it’s not clear how its formation will mesh with the legal process.
‘Whose water is he taking?’
In Kings County, Russell Waymire is among a group of farmers already expressing concerns about the prospect of new regulations, though they’re still years from being implemented.
Waymire, 64, has been an outspoken advocate for local farmers on water issues. Drivers along the major highways in the San Joaquin Valley likely have seen his handiwork: dozens of yellow signs that read, “Congress Created Dust Bowl.”
Waymire, the 2009 “Agriculturist of the Year for Kings County,” said he was forced to quit farming commercially in the 1990s when his government surface water deliveries were curtailed. He still grows some crops, but his primary income now comes from selling agricultural real estate in the Hanford area.
Absent the government restoring historic surface-water delivery levels, he said, groundwater is the only thing preventing more San Joaquin Valley farmers from going out of business. He speaks of restrictions on pumping in bleak terms: shuttered schools, broke local governments, vast brown fields of dust.
“I refuse to comply myself,” he said. “Because it’s a prescription for bankruptcy.”
Waymire said he hopes area farmers will sue to prevent the groundwater restrictions from being implemented.
Kings County supervisors have heard those threats loud and clear. They’ve also watched the uproar over the groundwater regulations in neighboring San Luis Obispo County.
At the advice of the county’s attorney, the supervisors have held off on taking proactive steps to regulate groundwater. Instead, they’re waiting for the state to finalize the regulatory process, and for various local agencies to figure out what form the county’s groundwater management structure will take. The supervisors said they also hope, in the years ahead, the state will step up to help pay for the county’s inevitable legal fees.
“There’s no question there will be lawsuits,” said Larry Spikes, the county’s administrative officer. “I don’t believe even the most congenial efforts to regulate groundwater will happen without lawsuits occurring … You’re really talking about a sea change in how this has been done.”
Still, Supervisor Verboon is among those in the county who say something needs to change. Increasingly, Verboon said, he hears other small farmers complaining that only the wealthiest among them – the big corporate operations – can afford to pay the tens of thousands of dollars required to install wells deep enough to reach the receding groundwater.
“It’s almost turned into a competition: Who can have the deepest well in the aquifer near your farm,” he said. “We need to have some kind of ordinance to protect us from trying to kill each other off. We don’t want to be fighting over water to survive.”
This isn’t an abstract concept for Verboon. His neighbor recently dug a massive well just feet from the edge of Verboon’s walnut orchard. He wonders whether his two shallower wells might soon pump nothing but air.
“Now you can see the concern you have with your neighbors when it comes to property rights,” Verboon said, glancing over at his neighbor’s pump. “Because whose water is he taking now?”
Ryan Sabalow: 916-321-1264, @ryansabalow Staff writer Dale Kasler contributed to this report. email@example.com
WATER AGENCY’S LAND PURCHASE RATTLES CALIFORNIA FARMERS
By Elliot Spagat and Jae Hong
BLYTHE, Calif. (AP) — The nation’s largest distributor of treated drinking water became the largest landowner in a remote California farming region for good reason: The alfalfa-growing area is first in line to get Colorado River water.
Metropolitan Water District of Southern California’s play in Palo Verde Valley, along the Arizona line, tapped a deep distrust between farm and city that pervades the West over a river that’s a lifeline for seven states and northern Mexico.
Farmers recall how Los Angeles’ modern founders built an aqueduct a century ago to bring water hundreds of miles from rural Owens Valley, a story that was fictionally portrayed in Roman Polanski’s 1974 film, “Chinatown.”
“Are we going to dry up our rural, agricultural communities just to keep Los Angeles, San Francisco and San Diego growing? I think it would be a sad state of affairs,” said Bart Fisher, a melon and broccoli farmer who is board president of the Palo Verde Irrigation District.
Metropolitan tried to calm nerves by sending its chairman in September to a public forum in Blythe, 225 miles east of its Los Angeles headquarters. It pledged to honor a 2004 agreement that caps the amount of land it pays farmers to idle at 28 percent of the valley.
That agreement, which expires in 2040, is hailed as a model for farms and cities to cooperate. Metropolitan pays farmers about as much as they would profit to harvest – $771 an acre this year – to bring foregone Colorado River water on its 242-mile aqueduct to 19 million people in the coastal megalopolis it serves.
Palo Verde enjoys California’s highest rights to the river, making their immune to drought.
The dynamic changed when Metropolitan paid $256 million in July to nearly double its Palo Verde holdings to 29,000 acres, or about 30 percent of the valley. The agency denied its purchase from Verbena LLC, a company that bought the land several years earlier from the Mormon church, was part of an orchestrated plan.
“It’s made the farmers out there nervous that we are the largest owner but there was a strategic opportunity that came up,” Metropolitan’s general manager Jeffrey Kightlinger said.
Metropolitan stirred similar angst this month in Northern California when its board expressed interest in buying farms on several islands in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta. Its staff said the land could provide water storage and wildlife habitat.
Blythe, a riverside town of about 13,000 people in the Mojave Desert with two state prisons, is an oasis of gas stations, motels and fast-food restaurants on Interstate 10 between Los Angeles and Phoenix. Thomas Blythe staked claim to the river in 1877, beating Southern California cities under a Gold Rush-era doctrine called ‘first in time, first in right.’
Los Angeles and its suburbs founded Metropolitan in 1928 to build the remarkably durable Colorado River Aqueduct. Parker Dam and the reservoir it created in Lake Havasu empties into a gray Art Deco-style building with nine pumps that quietly pipe water 300 feet up a steep slope. Teal metal cases that cover the pumps vibrate so little that a nickel placed on top stands on its side.
The water goes uphill through four more pump stations and through tunnels, canals and pipelines before reaching Southern California’s coastal plain two days later.
The Colorado’s huge man-made reservoirs have made the river an unheralded savior in California’s four-year drought. Last year, the river supplied two-thirds of the 1.7 billion gallons of drinking water that Metropolitan delivers daily, up from a third three years earlier.
The river sustains 40 million people and farms 5½ million acres, but white “bathtub rings” lining walls of the nation’s largest reservoir in Lake Mead, near Las Vegas, are evidence of shrinking supplies. California took more than it was entitled to until Sunbelt cities like Phoenix and Las Vegas clamored for their share and forced the nation’s most populous state to go on a diet in 2003.
“It’s really the only supply of water to this otherwise bone-dry region,” said Bill Hasencamp, Metropolitan’s manager of Colorado River resources.
Metropolitan has diverted up to 118,000 acre feet of water a year from Palo Verde since 2005, enough for about 250,000 households. It paid $3,170 an acre to farmers who committed for 35 years, plus an annual fee for fallowed land. It idles 7 percent to 28 percent of the valley each year, depending on its needs.
Jack Seiler, a grower who volunteered 900 acres, calls the agreement a “poster child” for farms and cities to cooperate but Metropolitan’s July purchase of nearly 13,000 acres unsettled him. It gave Metropolitan the largest voting bloc on Palo Verde’s water board.
Metropolitan says it won’t have to pay someone else to idle the land it now owns and will lease it to farmers, cutting its net cost to about $50 million. It voted for incumbents in a September election to Palo Verde’s seven-member board, which includes Seiler.
“I obviously don’t know why they bought all this land,” Seiler said. “It puts us a little bit at odds.”
NBC Bay Area
Solutions to California’s Water Crisis Have Already Been Implemented Abroad
Technology that can improve California’s drought resiliency, even without rain
By Stephen Stock, Michael Bott, Jeremy Carroll and Jeff Clayton
A three-month-long investigation by NBC Bay Area found several solutions to manage California’s drought, even without more rainfall, but experts say it’s a matter of putting those technologies to good use and streamlining government regulations and financial incentives in order to encourage people to use them.
Despite the expectation of record rainfall from El Niño in the winter of 2015-2016, experts predict California will remain in a drought well into the fall of 2016. For that reason, California Gov. Jerry Brown extended his executive order calling on mandatory conservation measures, which sent a strong signal that the governor is not banking on a strong El Niño to undo the damage done by four years of drought.
NBC Bay Area’s Investigation found a consensus of experts who say California cannot conserve its way out of the water crisis, with climate change expected to cause prolonged future dry spells and possibly wipe out or severely diminish the Sierra snowpack, one of the three main sources of water for the state.
Scientists say the data shows that four years of drought has already depleted underground aquifers to dangerously low levels in some places.
NBC Bay Area talked to more than 75 different experts, policymakers, scientists and researchers about new technologies and solutions to solving a water crisis on a large, regional scale.
As part of that investigation, NBC Bay Area’s Investigative Unit also traveled to Israel to see firsthand detailed solutions that could be applied in California. Some of the techniques the Israelis used on a large scale are now beginning to gain a foothold in California.
These are some of the solutions that don’t require an increase in rainfall or snowpack:
Recycling and Reuse
The expanded reuse of treated wastewater is one of the most important solutions that California can capitalize on, according to dozens of expert who talked to NBC Bay Area. According to both California’s Water Resources Control Board and the independent, non-partisan Milken Institute of Jerusalem think tank, only about 7 percent of wastewater is reused in California. Scientists say hundreds of millions of gallons of treated wastewater are dumped into the ocean every day from California. While Gov. Brown issued an executive order that would fast-track permitting for water recycling facilities, and the $7.5 billion water bond calls for increased investment in the technology, the experts say California has a long way to go to catch up to a country like Israel. Israel recycles about 85 percent of all its water, sometimes for a second or third time. In addition, 60 percent of all crops in Israel are irrigated with recycled urban wastewater.
Yigal Aftabi is an Israeli farmer with acres of red pomegranates growing in the Negev desert. Aftabi said nothing used to grow on the land he now farms because only a few years ago there wasn’t enough water. But since the country began a massive undertaking to recycle almost every drop of water and use it to irrigate crops, such as his pomegranates, he said a lack of rain doesn’t keep him up at night.
“I don’t depend on the rain at all,” Aftabi said. “The rain is extra for me, I don’t need rain anymore.”
Agriculture is just one of many ways California can reap the benefits of recycled water, according to the experts who talked to NBC Bay Area. Recycled water can also be used to recharge the state’s dwindling underground aquifers. Orange County is already doing just that. Experts point to Orange County as a model for the reuse of water that other municipal water districts should emulate.
Further in the future, those experts say, is the potential for direct potable reuse, also known as toilet-to-tap, where wastewater is treated and introduced directly into the public water system. Singapore has used this method of wastewater recycling successfully, and Texas recently built the first of this type of recycling facility of its kind in the United States.
San Francisco’s Public Utilities Commission has recently adopted an ordinance that requires property owners to install recycled water systems in new large construction projects.
Aaron Tartakovsky is a San Francisco entrepreneur who created a company called Epic CleanTec (http://epiccleantec.com/#epic-cleantec-home) that is trying to step into the opportunity created by the city’s new ordinance. The company is in the testing phase of a new on-site treatment technology that converts wastewater solids into a dry, odorless, organically-based bio solid that’s contained within a single building. Once the solids are removed, the separated water can be treated for reuse in toilet flushing or irrigation.
“A lot of things have been coming together,” Tartakovsky said. “Water is rising up all of a sudden in people’s consciousness. People are suddenly aware. And then this ordinance and all sorts of other stuff happening that’s making this very good timing.”
Tartakovsky said the SFPUC has been nothing but helpful when working with his company, but on a larger scale, he said California has room for improvement when it comes to reusing water.
“The SFPUC and the other people involved with water are doing amazing work here, but we can fundamentally change the way we do things,” Tartakovsky said. “The fact that we treat millions of gallons of water every day and then discharge that into our bodies of water and into our oceans, why not put that water onto our crops?”
Another solution to mitigate a lack of rain is drip irrigation. Developed on an Israeli kibbutz, or collective farm, 50 years ago, drip irrigation is quite literally the opposite of flood irrigation, the most common form of irrigation worldwide due to the fact that it’s cheap and easy. Flood irrigation simply requires a pipe to be opened, sending a torrent of water gushing into the field. Drip irrigation, on the other hand, relies on precision emitters placed alongside each plant. The emitters are engineered to water the plant’s root zone one drop of water at a time. Studies show it’s more efficient than flood irrigation and actually substantially increases yields of most crops.
Netafim, the Israeli company that pioneered drip irrigation, opened up a Fresno office in 1996. The company’s USA Division CEO John Vikupitz says California farmers have become more conscious of the technology over the last decade.
“I think that farmers in California in particular, and other parts of the country as well, deserve a lot more credit than they’re given for the adoption of technologies,” Vikupitz said.
In Israel, drip irrigation is used on about 75 percent of crops, according to the Milken Innovation Center at the Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies. In California, only about 40 percent of crops are watered with drip systems. Those farmers who use drip irrigation in the Central Valley tell NBC Bay Area they’ve been successful using it on a wide variety of crops.
“The sales pitch has gotten a lot easier,” Vikupitz said. “The other thing that’s occurring is that there’s a new generation of growers entering the business. These are kids that have gone to college at Cal Poly or UC Davis and they’re familiar and very willing to adopt new technology.”
Just down the road from Netafim’s Fresno office is one of those young farmers Vikupitz was talking about. Seth Rossow is an alfalfa grower with an MBA from Fresno State. He’s been using drip irrigation for about five years. Not only because it saves water, he says, but because it makes him more money.
“We’ve increased our yield so much that if you start actually calculating the dry matter pounds per drop of water, we’ve increased 62.5 percent of our crop per drop of water,” Rossow said.
Rossow said farmers want to conserve water, but they’re also running a business, and they need incentives if they’re going to invest the money for a new irrigation system. He says the increased yield definitely provides an incentive, but he’d like to see an easier and more streamlined process when it comes to applying for government grants. But, even as the situation exists today, Rossow said drip irrigation is spreading quickly.
“It helps when analyzing neighboring fields doing it,” Rossow said. “A lot of people are putting it in like crazy the last few years because of the drought. It’s just a better way of farming.”
Then there is the process of desalination, or the process of reverse osmosis that cleans salty ocean water and creates fresh drinking water. Experts agree that desalination is the most energy intensive and expensive source of fresh water that also carries some environmental consequences due to the salty brine wastewater that’s left over from the process. Critics of desalination say the briny wastewater can have negative impacts on marine life when it’s discharged back into the ocean.
But every expert NBC Bay Area talked to about drought solutions agreed that desalination is the only truly drought-proof source of water. As for critics of the process, desalination experts say new technology has made the process more energy efficient. And engineers have developed ways to mitigate the briny wastewater and dilute it during the desalination process to make it more environmentally friendly.
About 10 years ago, Israeli policymakers were forced into adopting desalination technology out of necessity during the country’ water crisis. Faced with the possibility of running out of water, the Israeli government ordered the construction of large-scale desalination plants that are now responsible for providing the a little more than half of the country’s drinking water. The plants are run by a company called IDE Technologies.
“Desalination is something that’s so important for the world and for Israel, of course,” said Miriam Faigon, director of the solutions department for IDE Israel. “It’s vital for us. When they made that decision, they understood that we cannot depend on the weather. We cannot depend on rain anymore, and that’s why you will see green in the middle of the desert.”
California isn’t as dry as Israel, which is why experts say the state won’t have to rely on desalination to the extent Israelis do. Israel also has the benefit of its smaller size, compared to California, meaning the expensive pipes that deliver water from desalination plants don’t have to be as long. But many of those same experts say desalination will play an important role in the future water security of California, especially in the dry, coastal areas of Southern California. In fact, the largest desalination plant in the Western Hemisphere recently went online in Carlsbad, built in part and operated by IDE Technologies. Experts also say that water pipe infrastructure already currently in the ground in places such as the Bay Area would serve desalination plants if they were built in those areas in the future.
Mark Lambert, CEO of IDE Americas, believes seawater desalination will eventually become 20 to 30 percent of California’s water portfolio. “In Southern California, we get most of our water from imported sources, either from Northern California or from the Colorado River,” Lambert said. “Eighty percent of all water in San Diego comes from someplace else.”
For places like San Diego, which experts say is at the end of a lot of dry pipes, the added cost is well worth the drought-proof security blanket desalination provides. Lambert said the City of Santa Barbara recently reached an agreement to upgrade their 25-year-old desalination plant because they’re fearful of a prolonged drought. Orange County is also contemplating building a desalination project.
“It’s water that’s always going to be there, it’s never going to go away,” Lambert said. “It isn’t dependent on snowpack or rainfall.”
The Carlsbad plant took more than 15 years to build because of the extensive permitting process. Lambert said he hopes, once people see how the plant can safely and cost-effectively deliver fresh water from the ocean, the permitting process will become more streamlined for future projects.
In fact, five Bay Area water agencies are investigating whether a desalination plant could be built in eastern Contra Costa County that would turn brackish water into drinking water. While nothing formal has been decided and no firm plans have been made, some of the state’s largest and most progressive water agencies are involved in discussions about the possibility of building such a plant. Included in those discussions are East Bay Municipal Utility District (EBMUD), the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission (SFPUC) and the Santa Clara Valley Water District (SCVWD).
Richard Sykes, director of Water and Natural Resources for EBMUD, used Australia, which turned to desalination during the Millennium Drought, as an example of why California should consider adding desalination to its water portfolio, even though that country’s desalination plants are not currently pumping out lots of water.
“They had to go to greater measures, greater use of desalination plants, all of which are basically idle right now because of the water,” Sykes said. “The people I talk to that had a part in planning for that say they’ve had absolutely no regrets for building those because, when they need them again, they’ll be there.”
Gavin Newsom making overtures to San Joaquin Valley – might go duck hunting
By David Siders
FIREBAUGH – Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom stepped down from a chartered turboprop last week and into the back of a borrowed van, rambling past melon fields and almond trees on the road to Joe Del Bosque’s farm.
For a politician seeking to draw a connection to the San Joaquin Valley amid California’s withering drought, the farmer’s fallowed fields are a standard course. President Barack Obama and Gov. Jerry Brown visited last year. Newsom, Del Bosque would tell him, was not the first gubernatorial candidate to make the trip.
On the ride over, a local water official accompanying Newsom described the area’s “big, big plans” before buckling under the recession and, later, drought. Salt settled in patches on bare fields. To reach groundwater, said the official, Ara Azhderian, a farmer might drill 2,000 feet, if he could find water at all.
Newsom scrawled in a pocket notebook.
“Jesus Christ,” he said.
Three years before the next gubernatorial election, Newsom and his rivals are making inroads into inland California, touring farms, holding receptions and speaking to small crowds. In addition to Newsom, two other Democrats who are expected to run, former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and former state Controller Steve Westly, have both made excursions in recent months.
“The Valley is always up for grabs, and I think that’s why people come here,” said Carol Whiteside, a former Modesto mayor.
If a Democratic politician could drive up turnout in Democratic cities such as Fresno, she said, he or she could “balance off the traditionally conservative voters” outside the city limits.
“It’s an area that could carry the state,” Whiteside said. “I think a lot of people are trying to figure out what’s the secret sauce here.”
Far from population centers on the coast, the Central Valley and Inland Empire make up more than a quarter of the state’s likely voters, according to the Public Policy Institute of California. For the early frontrunners, Newsom and Villaraigosa, who have cultivated bases of support in San Francisco and Los Angeles, respectively, inland California offers competitive ground.
“If this is a race between the (former) mayor of San Francisco and the (former) mayor of Los Angeles,” said Thad Kousser, a political science professor at the University of California, San Diego, “you need to find new territory to win in.”
In his successful 1998 campaign for governor, Democrat Gray Davis ran television ads in Bakersfield, Chico and Fresno emphasizing his support from law enforcement groups and his status as a Vietnam veteran. Brown, governor before from 1975 to 1983, has focused on his executive experience when campaigning in the Valley.
In his re-election campaign last year, Brown, a Democrat, failed to carry Fresno, Kern and Riverside counties. But he won in Merced, San Joaquin and Stanislaus counties. An increasing number of Latino voters in inland California, as well as transplants from coastal areas, has made the area more competitive for Democrats in recent years.
“The Central Valley of today is not really the Central Valley of 20 years ago,” said Garry South, a Democratic consultant who worked for Davis and, later, Newsom in his brief, unsuccessful campaign for governor in the run-up to 2010. “Is there a more conservative strain in the Central Valley? Yes, certainly as compared to San Francisco or L.A. But we tend to think of the Central Valley as being filled with a bunch of white people from Oklahoma who escaped the Dust Bowl. And that certainly happened, but that was a long time ago, and the demographics have changed a lot since then.”
Yet to Valley sensibilities, Newsom is coming from an especially far left. The former mayor of San Francisco is known to statewide audiences for supporting universal health care and for championing gay marriage and mandatory composting.
In the San Joaquin Valley, said Firebaugh Mayor Craig Knight, “I really don’t see that playing out too well.”
Newsom searches for common ground. Last month, he introduced a ballot measure to strengthen gun control laws in California, including banning the possession of large-capacity magazines. Last week, after visiting a Valley wildlife refuge, he said he had been skeet shooting and might go duck hunting for the first time this year.
At a reception at an Italian restaurant in Los Banos, Newsom lamented that issues especially significant to the Valley, including unemployment and poverty, fail to draw sufficient attention from California’s coastal-centric Democratic Party.
“We have not done justice to the Central Valley and to the Inland Empire and to some of our rural communities, and I’ve often wondered why that was the case,” Newsom said. “Everything we claim to care about as Democrats, that drive our party’s passions – issues of income inequality, social justice, dealing with racial disparities and concentrated poverty – is manifested quite acutely in the central part of this state.”
One difficulty of campaigning in inland California is that its population is disperse, with varied – sometimes competing – interests, especially over water. Before Newsom traveled to Los Banos, he convened a group of farmers in Courtland who lobbied him against Brown’s controversial plan to build two tunnels to divert water under the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta to the south.
“I’m here to listen, so bring it on,” Newsom said.
He left with this interpretation of their message: “Build the tunnels and we will track your great-great-grandkids down.”
Newsom has said he is skeptical of the tunnels project but is “open to argument.” His trip to the Los Banos area was taken in his official capacity as lieutenant governor and paid for by the California Farm Water Coalition, a nonprofit group that has been supportive of a conveyance.
On the flight from Sacramento to Los Banos, the group’s executive director, Mike Wade, told Newsom his group is “constantly struggling to get people to understand about water allocation, about farm water costs and crop choices and things like that.”
Water politics, always contentious in California, will likely factor heavily in the run-up to 2018. For the first time in a PPIC poll, Californians this year named water and drought the most important issue facing the state, above jobs and the economy.
Mike Stearns, a Republican who farms in Firebaugh, said that with half of his ranch fallowed, he could overlook ideological differences with a candidate if he or she made a compelling case on water policy.
During his visit last week, Newsom appeared “sincere about wanting to know what’s going on with the drought and the water management and the regulations,” Stearns said.
“I would say that I think generally the things that are most important to people in this state revolve around their food supply and things like that,” he said.
Except for listening, Newsom was not making policy commitments, and he was skeptical of some of the farmers’ complaints about federal and state regulations that have affected the agriculture industry’s access to water, including controversial protections for Delta smelt.
“At their core, they believe they’re suffering from bad public policy, and that’s the most difficult thing for them, I think, to accept,” Newsom said. “Because there’s a fundamental belief that federal policy and state policy is to blame. And I can accept aspects of that argument, but I have not concluded that that is exclusively the culprit. I think it’s a more complex issue than that.”
Back in the van, Newsom observed roadside signs that have marked the landscape for years blaming Congress – and, in particular, higher-profile Democrats than Newsom – for regulations restricting water exports to the Valley.
Newsom observed, dryly, that his name was not yet consequential enough to warrant protest.
“When I see a sign,” he said, “I’ll know I’ve made it.”
David Siders: 916-321-1215, @davidsiders, firstname.lastname@example.org