Dangerous water rights policies are moving through the California Legislature that put the interests of the few over the interests of the many. Family farmers like me depend on our long-held water rights to feed Californians but three bills seek to upend more than a hundred years of California’s most fundamental economic foundation over the next few weeks at our expense.
The Cienega Valley, near Hollister, has been a wine-growing region since the 1850s. My family has deep roots in the area – we bought our first piece of ground in the 1940s and the land for Wirz Vineyards, which we still operate, in 1983. We sell our grapes to small wineries across the state. While our vines are typically dry farmed, meaning we rely on the soil’s residual moisture from rain rather than artificial irrigation, water management and supply reliability has been critical to how I operate my business particularly during dry years.
Three bills introduced in this legislative session put that reliability at stake. AB 460 (Bauer-Kahan), AB 1337 (Wicks), and SB 389 (Allen) will upend California’s century-old water rights system, giving unprecedented power to the state’s Water Board. The Legislature is giving a blank check to this bureaucracy while giving them new authorities that will most certainly be used to harm existing water rights holders, who are using their water to grow food, to supply new neighborhoods with drinking water, and to facilitate power production. When the rights for those entities are put in the balance, the cost to those items will inevitably rise.
I understand the value of water rights. In the 1980s, my family joined a group of farmers from the Cienega Valley to ensure our water rights were protected and distributed equitably amongst us and the City of Hollister. These water agreements ensure we can water our crops, grow our businesses, and sell our products to Californians, and that Hollister residents have access to affordable, quality water from the Valley.
We reached an agreement that ensures everybody gets their fair share. Unfortunately, the bills proposed by legislators in this year’s session undermine the water rights that would not only hurt our businesses that keep our laborers employed but prevent us from continuing to provide Californians with our products at an affordable price point. In San Benito County, 95% of farms are family farms, like mine. We simply cannot afford to take on the costs associated with the drastic changes to water rights law proposed in these bills.
While the intent behind these bills may be to curtail illegal water diversions, they go far beyond punishing bad actors. One of the bills, AB 460, gives the state’s Water Board unprecedented authority to seize water rights and increase penalties without due process or judicial review. There’s no need for this. The Board already has the authority and resources to hold illegal diverters accountable. Another bill, AB 1337, would allow bureaucrats at the Board to order water rights holders to use less water than they have the legal right to use, even in wetter years. That’s like giving the government the ability to force you out of the house you own for parts of the year.
For the sake of farmers across California, and the working poor and middle-income families in both urban and rural communities, I hope legislators in Sacramento consider voting “no” on these bills, which will increase costs for food, housing, and energy.