Mar 24, 2022
CA Farm Bureau president urges action to achieve water promises
As California farmers and ranchers face another year of drought and cutbacks in water deliveries, a page out of history served as a reminder that the state’s water problems remain urgent – and that their voices are needed more than ever to press for legislative action.
Reading from the state’s first water plan – also known as Bulletin No. 3 – California Farm Bureau President Jamie Johansson pointed to how issues described in the 1957 report could have been written today: “The bulk of the waters of the state do not occur where they are needed and are not actually available when they are needed,” the plan said.
“This is nothing new,” Johansson said. “What is new is how we deal with it.”
He made his remarks in preparing Farm Bureau leaders for meetings with legislators later in the day. The meetings last week were held as part of the 2022 California Farm Bureau Capitol Ag Conference, which marked the beginning of the legislative year.
Johansson said the state used to follow through on its water plans with statutes every five years to address problems. That included building the State Water Project.
“It didn’t stop with a report like we did in 2018,” Johansson said. “They took action.”
Even with the threat of climate change, Johansson noted that multiyear droughts are not new and have occurred “60% of our 100 years in agriculture here in California.”
“This is the California experience and has been for over a hundred years,” he said. “How we deal with it and the resolve is what is lacking. We have always had the resolve to do what’s right for this state and our water supply, even when we’re adamantly opposed to it.”
He pointed to the 2014 passage of Proposition 1, the $7.5 billion state water bond, which authorized funding for water projects, including surface and groundwater storage. No construction has begun. “We haven’t followed through on anything so far in terms of bringing more (water) supply in,” Johansson said.
He noted that the federal infrastructure bill, signed into law last fall with Farm Bureau backing, provides funding for western water projects. He also applauded state Sen. Melissa Hurtado, D-Sanger, for her continuing efforts to secure state funding needed to repair California water conveyance systems.
“We have to decide as a state how serious we are about this water, and we as agriculture need to remind (lawmakers) how important we are to this state – not only this state, but to this country,” Johansson said.
He urged agricultural leaders to hold their legislators accountable for laws they pass and how those laws are being carried out. He said farmers have been willing to participate, be at the negotiating table and do the right thing, “but at the end of the day, if you’re going to pass a regulation, you have to tell us how we comply.”
“When you can’t obey the law because no one’s telling you how to, no one can interpret that law, that’s when you start getting into some really, really draconian politics,” Johansson added.
He pointed to implementation of the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act and the growing number of groundwater sustainability plans, or GSPs, that have been rejected by the state, some for seemingly unclear reasons. He urged farmers to not let legislators off the hook by allowing them to pin the blame on the administration or a state agency.
“You need to bring them up to speed,” Johansson said. “That’s what today’s all about on a whole host of issues.”
Regarding conservation and efforts to combat climate change, Johansson described Farm Bureau’s disappointment with a state plan known as Pathways to 30×30, which identifies California’s strategies to conserve 30% of its lands and waters by 2030.
The draft plan does not recognize the Williamson Act, created in 1965 to protect agricultural land and open space from urban development. It provides lower property tax rates to farmers and ranchers.
Johansson advised farm leaders to tell their legislators to restore the program. He said the program should be recognized as land in conservation.
But he also warned farmers that some lawmakers will “talk out of both sides of their mouths,” saying they support conservation and “multi-use working lands,” but then support policies that take working lands out of production or that don’t count those lands as conservation. He pointed to livestock grazing restrictions in national forests and how conservation efforts have become more about preservation, in which “a plot of land … is blocked off to everybody else,” turning public working lands into “a totally static resource.”
“If we don’t manage our resources, they become liabilities, and that’s what we’re seeing in our national forests and the wildfires that we’ve had,” Johansson said.
Lawmakers remain “in a quandary” about ongoing port congestion and supply-chain issues, he said, because they want “one simple solution” to a very complex problem. Johansson said they don’t know how to solve the problem because some of the solutions may run afoul of state air-quality standards or conflict with land use and other environmental goals.
To start, he said, farmers should tell lawmakers to increase the gross vehicle weight of trucks, now set at no more than 80,000 pounds in California. Johansson noted that in Oregon and Washington, the gross vehicle weight is up to 105,500 pounds. Michigan allows trucks with a gross vehicle weight of up to 164,000 pounds.
Johansson also encouraged farmers to tell their stories about how the state’s overtime rules are hurting their employees.
With district lines being redrawn and with midterm elections later this year, Johansson noted there will be new senators, Assembly members and congressional districts. He encouraged farm leaders to “get in front of” lawmakers and “really reach out.”
“This is a start of a very long, important year when it comes to the elections of who represents us and the voices that represent us and who allows us to have a voice,” Johansson said.
– Ching Lee, California Farm Bureau