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State proposes to add funding for water goals

Issue Date: May 19, 2021
By Kevin Hecteman

As more of California sinks into extreme drought, Gov. Gavin Newsom has asked the Legislature to appropriate billions of dollars to address critical water needs.

In the "May revise"—an update to the budget proposal he initially submitted to the Legislature in January—Newsom proposes to spend nearly $3.5 billion on water supply and resilience projects, with total investment reaching $5.1 billion over multiple years.

The revised budget lays out a number of water-related priorities: providing access to safe drinking water; building water-supply reliability and improving flood protection; immediate drought support; enabling improved data collection and monitoring; and restoring fish and wildlife habitat, reconnecting wildlife corridors and removing barriers to fish passage.

Notably missing from that list is agriculture, according to Danny Merkley, California Farm Bureau director of water resources.

"There's nothing in the budget that really helps free up water for food production and ag products," Merkley said. "There's just no water there."

The governor's plan will be negotiated along with a similar plan for short-term water investments proposed in the state Senate, with the resulting compromise appearing in the final budget that must be approved and sent to the governor by June 15.

Merkley noted that the governor's proposal includes elements of Senate Bill 559 from Sen. Melissa Hurtado, D-Sanger, which would help with repairs on water conveyance facilities.

"That would pony up the state's share of the cost for repairs to the Friant-Kern Canal, the California Aqueduct and the Delta-Mendota Canal, where they have subsidence issues and have considerable work to be done," he said.

A similar bill was approved by the Legislature last year but Newsom vetoed it, saying he supported repairing the Friant-Kern Canal but felt it should be dealt with in the normal budget process.

The governor's revised budget proposal also includes $200 million for implementation of the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, under which local groundwater sustainability agencies have been working to put together plans for state approval. The proposed funding brings Newsom's total budget request for SGMA to $300 million.

"Some folks are really breaking their backs, trying to meet their deadline of Jan. 31 to have their groundwater sustainability plans submitted for review," Merkley said, noting that the process has been especially tough on more rural counties.

He cited Humboldt County as an example.

"They're behind the 8-ball," Merkley said. "They haven't been able to have meetings where they can get public input and sort things out that way. They don't have good broadband, and they can't really meet in person."

Newsom also called for $500 million for Multi-Benefit Land Repurposing—in other words, aiding farmers forced to take agricultural land out of production because of a lack of water. The money would be used to conserve land for habitat and open space.

This idea is also being discussed in the Legislature as Assembly Bill 242 from Assembly members Robert Rivas, D-Hollister, and Rudy Salas, D-Bakersfield. Rivas chairs the Assembly Agriculture Committee.

How useful that funding would be "depends on where you are and who you are," Merkley said.

"If you're in a position that you're going to have to take your productive land out of production because of SGMA and because of the drought, you don't have water, then this can help," he said. "It's not going to make you whole, but it will help to offset some of your losses—losses in production, losses in property value—and it can help facilitate converting it to other uses."

Merkley noted that Farm Bureau policy opposes permanently retiring agricultural land, but that the land-conversion provisions of the budget proposal and AB 242 apply only to willing landowners, who would have the option of retaining title to their land.

"If they can get a little bit of help to offset their losses from lack of production to converting it to conservation uses, then that's helpful," he said.

The revised budget also proposes an additional $60 million for the State Water Efficiency and Enhancement Program, administered by the California Department of Food and Agriculture. The program provides financial assistance to farmers for irrigation system improvements that lower water use and greenhouse-gas emissions. The May revision also adds $5 million for technical assistance for on-farm water use efficiency, and $1.5 million for drought-related economic analysis and decision-making tools for agriculture.

Merkley said the current dire water situation in which California finds itself points up the need for planning ahead.

"It's too late now for this year, but where we'll really get our biggest bang for our buck is investing in storage," he said. "The voters, almost seven years ago, overwhelmingly approved $2.7 billion for new water storage (in the Proposition 1 water bond), and the process is really dragging its feet."

(Kevin Hecteman is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. He can be contacted at

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.

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