Plenty of politics, little water in California

03/22/2013 10:45:00 AM
Mike Hornick

Mike HornickCalifornia overflows with water politics, but not so much actual water.

The state water board here is urging the Legislature to seek new fees, mostly aimed at growers, to fund cleanup of nitrate-contaminated groundwater.

A lot of the burden would fall on operations in the Salinas and San Joaquin valleys.

They can’t easily pass new costs on to the big retail buyers, and may end up just eating them. (The costs, not the buyers.)

Up to $36 million is needed to make drinking water safe in tested areas, and more statewide, according to a University of California-Davis report.

In its February recommendation to lawmakers, the state board said most or all of that could be raised with a $100 to $180 per ton fee on nitrogen fertilizers.

Other options include a point-of-sale fee on commodities — not just California crops, but any entering the state. Or a public water fee for all users, the least palatable path for politicians.

Assembly Bill 1, which would redirect mill tax receipts on fertilizer from research to clean water projects, is backed by the Monterey County Farm Bureau, among others.

The amount is just a fraction of what the state board recommends, but the bureau is reluctant to go further.

“Until there is a clear-cut picture of what this funding will do and it doesn’t create another bureaucracy that wastes money, we’re going to be cautious about how we support anything,” said Norm Groot, the local bureau’s executive director.

“This is a shared responsibility. All citizens should participate.”

Moreover, Salinas Valley growers are bracing for the effect of California American Water’s move to drill coastal waters, a step toward a possible desalination plant for cities on the Monterey Peninsula.

The company targets shallower water but has said it may need to tap the 180-foot aquifer.

Tests start later this year. Growers are eager to see how much fresh water turns up in those wells.

The more there is, the greater the risk of saltwater intrusion.

“If it causes harm to the Salinas Valley aquifer or to landowners and growers near where slant wells are pulling water, that would be a major point of contention,” said Dale Huss, vice president of artichoke production for Castroville, Calif.-based Ocean Mist Farms.

Can California’s thirst for water be satisfied? From aqueducts to desalination, we’ve moved it up and down the state since at least the movie “Chinatown.”


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