dry farmland california drought
(photo: Eddie J. Rodriquez / Shutterstock.com)

By Patty Poire, President, Kern County Farm Bureau

WOW, here we are in June where half of the year has come and gone and May did not change or improve any of the California agricultural impacts from fertilizer, labor, regulatory, or water issues. If anything, those impacts just became more complicated. The toughness and resolve of the California farmer are truly being challenged as I stated in last month’s article.

In July of last year, Governor Newsom declared a drought emergency with an executive order asking Californians to cut urban water use by 15% compared to 2020 levels. However, records show that by March, Californians had increased water usage by a whopping 18.9% statewide compared to the March 2020 levels. Keep in mind that California agriculture has been given a water cut by both the State and Federal Water Projects of almost 100% of its contract amount of water, leaving only a questionable 5% of allocations. As mentioned in last month’s article, Governor Newsom extended that executive order on March 28, 2022. He added water well permit requirements that required confirmation that the new water well would not impede the ability of the basin to achieve groundwater sustainability, interfere with existing nearby wells, and not likely to cause subsidence that would adversely impact or damage nearby infrastructure. All these new requirements shall not apply to water well permits for wells that provide less than two acre-feet per year of groundwater for individual domestic users or that will exclusively provide groundwater to public water supply systems. I believe that all water wells contribute to groundwater overuse and all should be considered the same to begin educating every Californian about water use and conservation. What better time to stress water conservation as a way of life than at the beginning of the process to obtain a water well permit, in my opinion. Governor Brown’s Executive Order Making Water Conservation a California Way of Life signed back on May 9, 2016 began to set the stage.

In the Senate budget hearings going on in Sacramento, there are funds in the amount of $1.657 million being requested to hire 7 new permanent positions to carry out critical, statutorily mandated oversight responsibilities under the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA). This means that the state is preparing to have basins that submitted Groundwater Sustainable Plans (GSP) fail with the Department of Water Resources (DWR) review process and move towards probationary status with State Water Board intervention. The Kern subbasin is one of those basins that currently has an “incomplete” status with DWR and may be affected, which could mean the state coming in to oversee. The state intervention has two phases: (1) probation, and (2) an interim plan. What should be noted is that phase (1) requires data and fees from pumpers (landowners) to be submitted directly to the state. That data would then be used if the second phase should occur, which is when the state would develop an interim plan. The interim plan will likely require pumping cutbacks and other potential actions to correct groundwater overdrafts. Now, remember, water allocations have already been set by the state.

If that isn’t enough, that same senate budget hearing has an item called “Rebalance State Water Supply and Water Rights” in the amount of $2 billion. The intent is that California must consider new approaches to help reduce water demand to improve freshwater flows, enhance habitat conditions, and provide clean drinking water. I am in complete agreement about clean drinking water, but don’t understand improving and enhancing! At least at this time, they are stating that all this is voluntary, meaning they will not “force” anyone to participate. The Kern subbasin has had a State Water Project water right under contract since November 16, 1963, and it might appear that the state is looking to rebalance that water right. The contract water right invoice for the Kern subbasin in the year 2022 is $155 million. The allocation is only 5%, however, 100% of the bill is due and paid.

The supply chain situation has not improved at all, which has complicated commodity pricing, and there appear to be no solutions presented by the Federal Administration. Kern County is one of the richest counties in natural resources like oil and ag—resources that could and would have assisted in curbing inflation. It just doesn’t make any sense!

 Inflation also plays a part in the triggering of minimum wage for California agriculture and businesses. The soaring rise in inflation will have an impact on the setting of the minimum wage to $15.50 per hour beginning in January. This is due to a 2016 state law requiring that the minimum wage be increased when inflation grows more than 7%. One item to note is that wages have already risen this year by $1, with large employers paying $15 an hour and small employers paying $14 an hour. Now with inflation being as high as it is, small businesses will see a $2.50 rise in wages over the course of just one year. Inflation is not a friend to anyone!

The toughness and resolve of the California farmer are on display and being challenged. The Kern County Farm Bureau and California Farm Bureau will continue to demand a seat at the table to speak frankly on these issues—because, if you are not at the table, then you are on the menu.