Water Legislation Update panel at BC
Water Legislation Update panel at BC. (Water Association of Kern County)

By Audrey Hill, Feature Contributor, Valley Ag Voice

Audrey Hill
Audrey Hill, Feature Contributor, Valley Ag Voice

On July 26th, 2022 the Water Association of Kern County held a Water Legislation Update at Bakersfield College. At the luncheon, Senators Shannon Grove, Melissa Hurtado, and assemblyman Vince Fong spoke to farmers, resource specialists, journalists, and interested citizens about the ways water has been and will be moving in Kern County.

The one-hour panel with the legislatures was filled with information, and it was clear that the major drought that California is facing has strained California’s water supply beyond the infrastructure’s capacity to retain it. Simply put, with groundwater supply dwindling, Californians must rely more heavily on above-ground, man-made storage during the dry months. Unfortunately, the 50 million acre-feet of reservoir storage that was reported in 2020 by the Water Resilience Portfolio does not compare to the 850 million (1.3 billion acre-feet) storage capacity of the many groundwater basins that were once free-range. Vince Fong opened the discussion by stating that “We aren’t going to  conserve our way out of this problem. We actually are going to  have to build infrastructure and grow our supply.” Building water storage infrastructure for the state was one of, if not the main, take away from the update meeting. The question the state should decide soon is what infrastructure should be built?

The state has allocated 1.5 billion dollars to water resilience and long-term infrastructure. However, where, and how California will invest that money is still being debated. Senator Shannon Grove was excited to share about the Delta Conveyance Project, which plans to replace the State Water Project’s network of infrastructure around the Delta with large tunnels, making water easier to obtain in the Central Valley. The project is currently awaiting approval by the California Department of Water Resources but plans to bring water to the Central Valley without disrupting the delta smelt and salmon by use of low volume flows. However, the 1.5-billion-dollar allotment would not come close to covering the costs of the project. Rachel Becker from Cal Matters theorizes the project would take at least 16 billion dollars and 20 years to complete. Senator Hurtado believes a tunnel project like this one would increase storage, and therefore could be considered storage infrastructure, by improving flows. Additionally, assemblyman Fong notes that the state has a 97-million-dollar surplus, and he advocates for finishing water projects that are already in motion with those funds. Fong also stated that finishing these projects would require around 3 to 3.8 billion dollars. Although, he was most eager about the Drought Package which is in its final negotiation stage. This package comes with 800 million dollars in state funding, and Fong strongly encourages citizens to come to Sacramento and fight for storage infrastructure to be included in that package.

Another concern Senator Grove has is the allocation of funds by the State Water Resources Budget Subcommittee to allow Governor Newsom to purchase senior water rights. According to Senator Grove, this uses taxpayer dollars to “starve out our farmers” and our producers until “they have no alternative but to sell their water rights to the state of California” giving the state ultimate control over where the water goes. This could circumvent centuries of water rights and put many farmers out of business. Senator Hurtado mentions that the lack of water to farmers quickly becomes an issue of food security for everyone, not just those in California. Kern County is the third largest food producing county in the world and many rely on the county to produce both fresh and canned foods, as long as there is access to water.

Another major theme of the panel was the importance of the Central Valley–of course for agriculture but not exclusively. Kern County alone produces 70% of the states oil, 53% of the state’s renewable energy, and both Fresno and Bakersfield are two of the top 10 largest cities in the state. Getting water to the Central Valley is not just for agricultural benefit, but also for the benefit of the fastest growing region in California.

Surprisingly, when the crowd was given a chance to ask questions, the major concern was about the oil industry. One farmer stood, thanked the legislators for their work on the 599 Bill, and made a clear point that the oil industry is part of the larger backbone that supports Kern County. Concerned that the state plans to shut down the fossil fuel industry too fast, he is worried that many civilians and the local government will suffer. Senator Hurtado agreed and spoke how energy and its working community, should be protected as a resource just as much as water.

The bottom line is that everyone deserves to have fresh water in their homes and clean, healthy food on their tables. Senator Hurtado mentioned throughout the meeting that the issues California faces with water today can be framed in many ways. She stated that lack of water is a civil health issue, a food safety issue, and an environmental issue; and beyond that, it’s a climate change issue and an economy issue for many counties. There are many factors that must be considered when working with water on such a scale, and in the past, truly understanding the issues doesn’t usually occur until it’s seen with hindsight. Fortunately, California has the capability to make immense strides and panels like this one show that people are working to make changes and that legislators are working to keep our best interests in mind in Sacramento.