Feinstein outlines approaches to deal with water losses

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Issue Date: April 7, 2010

By Christine Souza
Assistant Editor

Meeting with a group of about 150 farmers in Fresno last week, Sen. Dianne Feinstein discussed top issues affecting farmers and ranchers, including how to address the water supply challenges that have hit particularly hard in regions south of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

According to participants in the informational meeting, Feinstein, D-Calif., recalled a visit to the region last August, describing dry, arid and vacant land and bulldozers tearing out productive orchards. She also noted 40 percent unemployment in the Westside city of Mendota and concluded that the situation was "unsustainable" and that "something had to be done."

"It is great to have Sen. Feinstein take such an active and personal interest in seeing that the short-term needs of our farmers and ranchers are met," said California Farm Bureau Federation President Paul Wenger, who attended the meeting. "We know that the long-term solutions to our water problems are going to be fraught with delays and lawsuits, but within the next 10 years we need to make sure that our farmers and ranchers have the water they need to farm the products that are in demand by consumers everywhere."

To prevent what happened in 2009 from happening this year, Feinstein spelled out potential approaches for finding and managing water. She said the U.S. Department of the Interior is working with state and federal agencies and local water districts to secure additional water supplies for Central Valley Project farm customers south of the delta. The agencies expect that these short-term fixes could increase available water supplies by 150,000 to 200,000 acre-feet.

The senator presented farmers with a series of about 10 short-term adjustments being considered, which could lead to water deliveries as high as 40 percent on CVP contracts that now stand at 25 percent. One example would be the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California delaying its water delivery from San Luis Reservoir and instead taking it in the fall, which would free more water in the summertime for agricultural use. Other potential actions include increased water movement through State Water Project delta pumps after July 1, to allow increased CVP deliveries; recovery and rescheduling of restoration flows into the San Joaquin River; and a variety of water exchanges, transfers and groundwater-substitution programs.

Wenger described the actions as a possible blueprint for improved water certainty.

"Many of the recommended actions that she described will provide flexibility in the system and that is what is necessary," he said.

Fresno County farmer Debbie Jacobsen, a CFBF director, said that farmers can be certain that "Sen. Feinstein is working behind the scenes to try to ensure additional water for all farmers."

To solve California's water issues long-term, Feinstein reportedly appealed to the group to pass the state water bond that will appear on the statewide ballot in November. She added that the key to solving water problems long-term depends on water development and storage of water in wet years to carry California through into the dry years.

CFBF has not taken a position on the water bond, Wenger said, adding that the earliest that the organization could take up the issue is in mid-April by members of the CFBF Water Advisory Committee, which may make a recommendation to the CFBF Board of Directors.

Along with the discussion of water issues, Feinstein updated farmers on tax and immigration policies that Congress may debate during the coming months.

Although final details are still being ironed out, Feinstein mentioned that she is working with Farm Bureau on legislation that would defer all estate taxes as long as the operation remained a family farm, a measure similar to one introduced in the House of Representatives last year.

"Estate tax was a big issue for a lot of people in the room," Wenger said. "Some even said, 'Water is important, but estate taxes will affect everybody at some point in time.' Water will not be solved this year, but estate tax could be."

For Jacobsen, whose family was personally affected by the estate tax recently, the bottom line is to be able to keep agricultural land in production and farmers farming.

"The legislation that Sen. Feinstein and others are proposing will not solve all of our problems, but it is going to help a lot of people," Jacobsen said. "There is such a misconception that this directly impacts just a few people. In the long term, it is about saving agricultural land and keeping farmers farming. That is what farming is about: handing down the land from one generation to another."

While standing before a roomful of farmers, Feinstein took the opportunity to provide an update on immigration policy, stating that she considered it clear that American, domestic workers can't or won't take jobs in agriculture. She added that farmers need a legalized work force through a guestworker program. Feinstein has sponsored the AgJOBS measure to reform agricultural immigration programs and said that, though it may prove difficult to pass a comprehensive immigration bill in an election year, there will be a push to pass AgJOBS as a small measure.

(Christine Souza is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at csouza@cfbf.com.)

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