SACRAMENTO, Calif. (KTXL) — Chris Scheuring’s farm, like many others in California, has been forced to adapt to the drought.
Some things have changed since Scheuring grew up on his parents’ farm in Yolo County. Sprinklers being used are smaller these days, targeting the tree roots.
“It uses a lot less water. And that’s the name of the game because we don’t have water to waste in California,” Scheuring said. “California agriculture is on defense this year because of water.”
Scheuring said the water district in the county, like many others, is down to nothing this year.
Farmers in Capay Valley, during a good year, would be getting water from an irrigation canal, but currently, they are relying on groundwater.
“That’s true for a lot of farmers across the state. The groundwater is the savings account. It’s the backup plan,” Scheuring said.
But what if a farmer simply wanted to cash out?
What if the state would pay them to stop watering?
That’s the gist of a $2 billion proposal at the State Capitol focusing on farms that use the most water. Some farms are allowed to use significantly more water than others based on allotments granted to them by the state many years ago.
Those are called senior water rights.
“This proposal attempts to change the mindset and say, ‘We have more water rights than we have water,” State Senator Bob Wieckowski, D-Fremont, said.
Wieckowski is pushing for the plan to be part of the state budget, offering to purchase senior rights from farmers.
“We’re saying that the state is going to create a vehicle, and we’re going to purchase the water rights. We’re going to voluntarily purchase them, whatever the price is,” Wieckowski said.
With more water under California government control, the state would have more power to decide how that water should be used, whether for farms, drinking water or fish habitat.
“In a drought year, it may be just enough additional water so that the habitat in the rivers survive. They don’t thrive, but they survive. The trees in your orchard live,” Wieckowski said. “You don’t have a bumper crop. But you’re not having that waste or deterioration of the habitat.”
“It’s a different mindset, and it’s rebalancing the way that California manages their resources and manages their water,” Wieckowski added.
But not all agree with the plan.
“This is my biggest fear is that the government is going to own those water rights. They’re private property rights now. We need to make sure that we keep agriculture in California because we have a sustainable food supply in California,” State Senator Brian Dahle, R-Bieber, said.
Most Californians may know Dahle as a candidate for governor. But his roots are in farming.
“We’re the bread basket of the world. And if we don’t have water to raise crops, California will be changed forever,” Dahle said.
Dahle said, instead of buying water rights, the state should focus on building more water storage capacity.
“In 2014, we passed a water bond that would allow us to build infrastructure to store water, and we haven’t turned a shovel yet,” Dahle said. “And the money is available. It’s caught up in court and the regulatory environment.”
Wieckowski emphasizes the sale of private water rights to the state would be voluntary, and the prices would be negotiated with the farmers.
“We think that there are plenty of people that want to sell their water rights. It’s like your house. I don’t want to sell my house. But if the price is right, maybe I do,” Wieckowski said.
“Voluntary is better than a regulatory confiscation of water rights,” Scheuring said.
In addition to being a farmer, Scheuring is a water rights attorney with the California Farm Bureau.
“On a micro-level, I don’t think the farm bureau would stand in the way of that,” Scheuring said.
While he understands the thinking behind the proposal, Scheuring expresses concern about the possible ripple effects of shrinking California’s agricultural landscape.
“That production is probably going to go somewhere else in the world. And it’s probably going to be under less felicitous circumstances than if we kept it here,” Scheuring said. “California is a marvelous place to farm. We have a Mediterranean climate with mild winters. You have Mediterranean crops, like almonds for example. You’re not going to grow almonds in Iowa. It’s just not going to happen.”
“There’s a strong case to be made that we should keep that production in California because it’s the most efficient and the most regulated agricultural landscape, compared to most places anyway,” Scheuring continued.
Like Dahle, Scheuring stresses the urgency to build more water storage facilities.
While California waits for that to happen, Wieckowski sees buying water rights as something that can reduce conflict and provide some relief to a stressed water delivery system in a climate of uncertainty.
“We’ve got to do something to manage this from now into the future,” Wieckowski.
It’ll be an uncertain future for anyone who relies on the precious resource.
The proposal is not currently included in the tentative state budget agreement. Sen. Wieckowski’s office said it will be part of ongoing negotiations for state funding.