Go big or go home.

My guess is that it would take two more dry years for California to get serious about revising the water rights system.  (Especially with the possibility of getting a water rights reform initiative on the presidential ballot in November 2016.)  I think people get serious about drought in year six.  In year four, apparently, we tentatively bring up the topic.

Speaking at the Western Governors’ Association Drought Forum in Incline Village, Nev., earlier this week, the California’s top natural resources official said that Gov. Jerry Brown (D) has publicly suggested that the system of water rights might need to be re-evaluated if the drought continues. Notably, Natural Resources Secretary John Laird said, there wasn’t a major political backlash when the governor made those comments.

“For the first time the public is sort of like, ‘This is not making sense — rice farmers are flooding because they have the most senior water rights, and we’ve got cities on the cusp of running out of water – we need to look at this,'” Laird said.

“I still think it’s thermonuclear, but for the first time it’s been moved to the table,” he said.

So far I’ve only seen mentions of the concept.  I haven’t seen anyone but me put forth an actual proposal.  People say vague shit like “you know, what Australia did.”  But here I am with this blog and no sense.  My recent insight was that water rights reform should be part of a package so big that water rights reform is the least of the boldness.  I call this package “California’s Resilient Agriculture” initiative.

California’s Resilient Agriculture:

Water rights reform, such that

  • every person in the state gets a headright of 40gppd administered by cities or urban district, and maybe cities can buy additional water from the state for their other uses;
  • we’ve got some nice instream flows; and
  • six million acres of land are kept in agriculture. The acres that should be kept in farming get a farming right of 3.5acrefeet/acre (that reverts if that land isn’t farmed that year, but returns if the land is put back into ag production). Give four million acres top priority; those get water even in dry years. Another million acres gets medium priority; those get farmed in normal years. The last million acres gets farmed in wet years.  Have residency requirements for the agricultural water rights.  If the land gets converted to urban use, it loses the farming water right.

A marijuana-growing licensing program modeled on the tobacco growing program that supported small eastern farms.

Converting hundreds of thousands of acres of retired ag lands to solar power production.

Converting hundreds of thousands of acres of retired ag lands to state parks or groundwater recharge basins.

Putting a couple new Cal State colleges at high speed rail stops.

Giving everyone who lived through this drought in a farming zip code free scholarships to one of the California public universities, or their descendants for the next twenty-five years.

Giving lots more support to the California ag extension program.  Way bigger.

Supporting the nascent agricultural technology center developing in Fresno.

Creating supports for people entering ag (tax credits for farmers who mentor new ag entrants, special mortgages for farms owned by new farmers, and maybe a few years of financial support for new farmers).

Probably something nice for the mountain counties, because boy do they object when the headwaters are neglected.

ADDED 7/9:  Combine the water projects (SWP and CVP) and transfer operation to the water users (if they want it).

If water rights reform is only a take-away, it might still pass on the strength of urban votes.  Urban users aren’t going to put up with short showers indefinitely when there is water out there.  But the interior valleys have been neglected for decades and have a strong moral claim to basically as much money as we can throw at them.  I am serious about having (much smaller) resilient agriculture and food security for Californians.  If resilient agriculture were the goal, the outlines of reform and bundling start to become clear.


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4 responses to “Go big or go home.

  1. ConcernedCalifornian96

    Agree with turning crap farmland into solar. Especially in Westlands. Policy makers don’t understand that large scale solar in Central Valley is win-win but requires it to be done at large scale. Instead of beating our heads in sand (no pun intended) in scrapping desert habitat and putting solar in areas where there are no people lets put it in valley, close to major cities, solve a major piece of long term water problem by taking 100,000 acres or more of crap farmland out of production and then 15 years down the road use that power to (after PV plant has depreciated) create desal water to negotiate with CV water districts to retire more land. Desal costs are mostly from energy but if energy is free due then price of desal water should theoretically be competitive with groundwater pumping. Policy makers should also be looking at how to use renewable energy to support a groundwater cleanup and recharge program for CV to clean up all that toxic surface water. Solutions are in front of us but it requires Governor to look beyond silos of energy, water, enviro policy issues and create win-win solutions that tackle all of the problems simultaneously.

  2. Uti

    Thanks for mentioning a cannabis licensing and regulation program that doesn’t exclude small farmers. If the legalization initiative doesn’t include small farmers we’re screwed because it will continue to incentivize clandestine black market growers in the hills.

  3. anonymous

    There are illegal growers in the delta as well…

    I wonder if the voluntary conservation program and delta water master satelitte enforcement will expose more grows?

    It seems like some delta islands could be great places to grow legal marijuana. Imagine Amsterdam-style coffee houses in Isleton and Rio Vista. Could marijuana cultivation and tourism be the keystone of a new delta economic sustainability plan?

  4. Steve Bloom

    ICYMI there’s a good new article in the East Bay Express about the scapegoating of the Delta smelt by irrigation interests.

    Also, re an initiative, be aware that under the extensive new state rules time is already getting shortish:

    “August 25, 2015 – Suggested last day for proponent(s) to submit proposed measure to the Attorney General and request a circulating title and summary.” (This isn’t a legal deadline, but as a practical matter slipping very much past it means having to cut into circulating time in order to ensure getting on the 2016 ballot.)

    On the plus side, there’s an extra 30 days allowed for circulation (180 rather than 150) and because of the near-uncontested 2014 gubernatorial election the valid signature requirement for 2016 and 2018 dropped way down to 365,880 for a statute and 585,407 for a constitutional amendment, so overall its much easier than in recent years.

    If there’s interest in starting something, I’d be interested in helping.