By Tito Sasaki
Never let a crisis go to waste” is a creed held by many politicians. When there is a crisis, there is a flurry of legislation that wouldn’t have passed in normal times. The current drought and groundwater crisis made it easy for the Sustainable Groundwater Management Bill (AB 1739-Dckinson/SB 1168-Pavley) to pass committees. By the time you read this article you will know if the bill passed both Houses, potentially giving the State the ultimate authority in deciding if and how much water you can pump from your wells.
No one denies that there is a groundwater crisis, but it was a political failure that caused the current crisis. Groundwater depletion wouldn’t have been as severe if surface water were reliably available. But surface water became scarcer as policy makers allotted more water to instream flows that run out to the sea, while failing to invest in the storage infrastructure to keep up with the population growth and climate uncertainty.
Last month’s passage of the amended water bond for the November ballot was a welcome change for the long neglected water storage infrastructure investment. The California Farm Bureau Federation had an integral role in securing $2.7 billion for future storage projects, while protecting water rights.
Despite good news, we continue to face the danger of poorly written, crisis-driven legislation. Emergency measures often call for surrendering individual rights for the survival of many. The 13th Century theologian St. Thomas Aquinas said, “In time of necessity all things are common property.” However, he maintained, as did Aristotle 16 centuries earlier, that in normal times it is both natural and lawful that man holds property for himself. Our Constitution protects individual rights, including property rights. These rights are essential for civilization. So, there should be a clear distinction between emergency measures and permanent laws.
The public trust doctrine was originally meant to protect the public necessities such as navigation. Recently, it has been used more liberally to advance public wants or enjoyment. Only public necessity should trump over private property rights. But there is a common notion that any public trust is a holy grail.
We feel the threat most acutely on our land. The current controversy over the interpretation of the Water of the United States (WOTUS) is an example. We may lose control of our land if there is any water on it, and we cannot count on most voters to come to our defense.
There is a fundamental difference between farmers’ and urbanites’ relationships to the land. In economic terms, land is capital goods for farmers. But it is a consumer item (in the sense a house is) for urbanites.
In plain terms, for urbanites open space is a treasure to be cherished like a piece of jewelry. When they believe that they have a possessory interest in it, they naturally think they have the right to keep it as pretty as they dream of it.
For us farmers and ranchers, on the other hand, land is our working partner. We work with land and together we produce the bounty of the earth. We are married to the land, and her beauty emanates from within. It’s more precious than a piece of jewelry.
Land is not just soil. It is also water, the sun and air that come naturally with it. They together make up the land. We must protect our partner from being torn apart.