California’s Water Rights Controversy: Should Farmers Be Allowed to Transfer Water to Developers?
Two farmers in San Joaquin Valley, California have recently come under scrutiny for proposing to sell their water rights to developers. As a part of the Dudley Ridge Water District they have the right to draw up to 57,343 acre-feet of water per year from the California State Water Project. (An acre-foot is the amount it takes to cover an acre of land in a foot of water – about twice as much as an average household uses in a year.) The California Department of Water Resources defines its State Water Project as “a water storage and delivery system of reservoirs, aqueducts, powerplants and pumping plants,” 30% of which is set aside for agriculture and from which farmers are allotted their yearly supply.
Under this potential sale, the farmers would be paid a total of $11.7 million dollars, as they sell the water at a price of $5,850 per acre-foot to the Tejon Ranch who will have access to 2,000 acre-feet per year. This kind of arrangement is not limited to these two farmers, and is an increasingly common occurrence as the water a farm has access to becomes more valuable than the returns from actually growing crops. Last year, the Dudley Ridge Water District sold 14,000 acre feet of water to the Mojave Water District for a total gain of $73 million. While the idea of transferring water is not new, the main difference is that while up until this point the majority of water transfers have been temporary agreements between districts, this is a permanent transfer of water.
Agreements such as these have been met with mixed responses including a grand jury investigation over the Dudley Ridge Water District’s sale last year. Outspoken opponents of this practice include Independent California State Assemblyman Juan Arambula who says that while this practice may be legal, he still believes it is wrong, and Republican Washington Senator Bob Morton who says that “[these areas] will literally dry up” since these practices would hurt his state’s “economy [and] agricultural production”. Arambula echoes Morton’s critique asking “What am I going to tell folks when farmers sell their water and put farm workers out of a job…? They make millions at the public’s expense.”
However, his bill mandating a study to examine the potential economic effects prior to a sale failed in the state legislature, predominately due to resistance from agriculture and the cities that would be receiving the water transfers.
Another commonly echoed argument against permanent and long-term water transfers is that it gives farmers an unfair advantage since they pay a mere $500 per acre-foot compared with the district’s selling price of $5,850 per acre-foot. Opponents argue that it is both unfair and hypocritical since farmers push for increased water supplies, saying that it is necessary to grow crops, and then sell water at huge profits after buying it at subsidized prices.
Proponents of water transfers argue that the farmers are in fact acting within their rights and that the transfers are an effective way of dealing with the water problems farmers encounter. Diane Peck, the executive director of the King’s County Farm Bureau, says that arguably, “as landowners, it is their right to sell that water,” and Dale Melville, Dudley Ridge’s Water District Manager, believes that the issue is nothing more than “an economic decision the landowners need to make.” They also name the numerous problems farmers face including coping with droughts and being required to pay for maintaining the local water infrastructure. Both of these encourage farmers to sell their water rights since it guarantees a profit aside from their crops and reduces their annual expenses. Finally, advocates also cite situations, such as in Palo Verde, where putting water rights on the market resulted in a more even distribution of water and provided incentives for conservation amongst those who had originally held the water.
The selling of water rights remains a controversial issue, especially as industry and home development compete with farmers for limited water supplies. Although opponents point out the numerous problems with the current method, it is nevertheless an issue that will have to be contended with as farmers attempt to gain a profit and developers endeavor to garner the water they require.