Is California Creating More Bureaucracies with the GSAs?

Written By: Tawny Tesconi, Executive Director
Published: April 1, 2018

“Whiskey is for drinking and water is for fighting over” is a quote that has been around for at least 150 years. Even some of our favorite westerns have John Wayne or Clint Eastwood stepping up to help the small cattleman protect his water rights that are being threatened by the local land baron or greedy miner.

I am sure those stories portraited in film were based on some truths, and I doubt that our forefathers would have predicted that in the 21st century there would still be water wars in our country, but there are. And, in my new role as the Executive Director of your Farm Bureau, I cannot help but feel like much of this sparing is aimed at farmers. Water testing, water monitoring, watersheds, water reclaim, water recharge, and GSAs have become part of my daily vocabulary.

Get this. A GSP is required to be developed by a GSA which must be established as stated in California’s SGMA of 2014. (Don’t you love acronyms). In English, the previous line reads “A Groundwater Sustainability Plan is required to be developed by a Groundwater Sustainability Agency which must be established as stated in California’s Sustainable Groundwater Management Act of 2014.” Currently, the law requires that GSAs must be formed for high and medium-priority groundwater basins in our state. Out of the 127 California water basins under the umbrella of GSAs, Sonoma County has three: the Santa Rosa Plain GSA, the Sonoma Valley GSA, and the Petaluma Valley GSA.

One of the most interesting aspects of the formation of our local GSAs is that to have a seat at the table, you must pay, and the price tag isn’t cheap. Most are paying $55,000 per year per GSA. There are cities, our County, water agencies, and RCDs at the table. A friend of mine mentioned that this process seems “undemocratic” and I must agree. It is much easier for municipalities to find money in their coffers than RCDs or organizations like Farm Bureau, and we need a seat at all 3 GSAs. Luckily, we currently have strong agriculture representation on these GSA boards; but the ability for some of these supporting organizations to stay on these boards for another four years and pay for their seat may be in jeopardy.

As part of the process, a consultant was hired to report back on the estimated cost to complete the first phase of the GSP, which is the required crafting of a management plan for each of these basins. The estimated costs are staggering and range from $470,000 to $740,000 per basin, per year. The planning phase is expected to be a 4 to 5-year process, so you can do the math and see that even before any water is preserved, residents in these basins will be reaching deep in their pockets, and there are people who believe that agriculture needs to do the deepest reaching. (In the interest of full disclosure, there is $1 million per basin in grant monies coming that is likely coming that will offset these costs, but it still leaves a large amount of money to be found and more importantly, a rate fee structure that will likely set a dangerous precedent).

The belief that agriculture needs to shoulder the costs because they are the biggest users of groundwater is unsubstantiated and unfair. Over the decades, farmers have found ways to use reclaimed water, have developed private water storage systems, and have done soil enhancements that reduce the amount of water needed. It is true that much of the water use in our cities comes from surface water, specifically the Russian River. But who is paying for the opportunity to have the Warm Springs Dam as water storage for urban use? All of us who pay property taxes, and if you are part of farming in our county, you most likely are not getting municipal water.

One of the largest groundwater basins in our area ripe for preservation of groundwater has the City of Santa Rosa built on top of it with very little opportunity for recharge. The cities should be celebrating the thousands of acres of farmland that surrounds them since agriculture is their best hope to preserve groundwater as an emergency backup plan for their current water supply. But instead, it is being suggested that since the cities do not pull a large amount of their used water from underground, that it is not their responsibility to financially support the GSP.

Your Farm Bureau team is working on an alternative funding plan and is meeting with elected officials, but more needs to be done and we need your help. You can participate in the public meetings that are being held to discuss the funding plan phase of the GSP and make your thoughts known. Reach out to the elected officials and let them know that locally grown food and local farmers need water, but it can’t come at an exorbitant cost that could force some of our smallest agriculturalists out of business. It is going to take all of us voicing our opinion to prevent agriculture from being the “fall guy” in this bureaucratic process.

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