In summary

Californians need productive farms and a healthy environment, and we should be focused on projects that enhance the water supply for all.

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By Bill Diedrich, Special to CalMatters

Bill Diedrich is president of the California Farm Water Coalition and a farmer from Firebaugh who grows processing tomatoes, pistachios and almonds.

Prior to Gov. Gavin Newsom’s State of the State speech, there is one item to examine that serves as a building block for all the issues the governor will address – water. 

Despite unexpected storms in late 2021, California is braced for another year of drought.

The water we do have must move throughout the state by way of a complicated system of reservoirs, dams, canals, pipes and treatment plants. That movement is managed by an equally complicated network of federal, state and local officials. 

We can’t improve our water supply or get it to its destination without storage, conveyance and the management system functioning. And the success of all requires collaboration among water users and the state of California.

California’s water infrastructure is old and failing. Both the lack of infrastructure and failing infrastructure are major reasons hundreds of thousands of Californians, most in rural and disadvantaged communities, lack access to clean drinking water. Infrastructure improvements would help struggling fish populations. And infrastructure repairs are necessary to prevent structural failures such as the Oroville Dam spillway.

Infrastructure not only moves water, it allows us to store more water in the face of climate change.

In 2021 Congress passed an historic bi-partisan infrastructure bill allocating funds for a wide range of infrastructure projects. The governor has also included water infrastructure spending in the state budget.

But a line item in a piece of legislation or budget doesn’t save, create or move one drop of water.

Our governments must move forward now on both short- and long-term projects. We’re delighted to hear that Sites Reservoir will soon break ground, but other, smaller projects can be operational sooner. The highly respected Legislative Analyst’s Office released a report in February, also urging the state to move quickly, focusing on projects that would make a difference now.

In addition, water must be managed in a way that takes a holistic approach to our environmental health, utilizes the most current science, and has the flexibility to adjust as situations change and new information becomes available. 

The third element critical to a secure water future is cooperation among water users. Squabbling in the public domain tries to pit farmers against  environmentalists, seeking to determine a winner and a loser. What that outlook ignores is that both benefit from the other. Farms don’t need to lose for the environment to win or vice versa.

Much of California’s most important wildlife areas exist alongside some of the state’s most productive farmland and farmers are a key part of preserving this valuable habitat. 

Farms also provide greenspace in an era of widespread population growth as well as plants and trees that capture carbon, helping offset the impact of climate change.

California farms are the best, most efficient in the world at growing food, and they can’t just be moved elsewhere. Without them, we will be forced to import more food, which could mean higher prices, a less safe food supply, job losses, particularly in disadvantaged communities, and continuing supply chain problems as we’ve seen with COVID-19. And with unfolding world events, there is no better time to be thinking about food security and the inextricable connection between reliable water resources and our food supply.

There have been recent discussions among academics suggesting that upending our system of water rights will solve our problems, which is simply not true. Layering more bureaucracy on top of California’s already-complex water laws will not fix anything.

Californians need both productive farms and a healthy environment, and we should be focused on projects that enhance the water supply for all, not get sidetracked by issues that will not add one drop of water to our supply.

We have the tools to secure our water future, now is the time to use them. 

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