Negotiating agriculture representation in decision making on groundwater sustainability
Consensus Building Institute
Picture Not Available
Recent California law requires local public agencies overlying basins in overdraft conditions to come together to form public agencies to manage groundwater sustainably. This paper will examine challenges that the law presents for agriculture groundwater users to participate in governance decision-making: unifying diverse agricultural interests and representing agricultural groundwater users via existing or by forming new public agencies. The paper will draw on coastal case studies, specifically Sonoma County in Northern California, Ventura County in Southern California, and the Salinas Valley on the Central Coast.Many growers and operators in California agriculture rely heavily, sometimes solely, on groundwater for production. In groundwater basins, growers, processors, and shippers may all rely on a common resource. Agriculture is also likely to be dispersed over a large geographic area within the same groundwater basin with different climatic conditions and crops subject to management and state requirements for sustainability. Growers may have very different cultures, social classes, and water use practices – think orchards, strawberries, vegetable farmers, grape growers, and cattle ranchers. Yet, despite the diversity within agriculture and the necessity of groundwater to support the agriculture (and local) economy, agriculture may be vying for just one seat on a governing body that can levy fees and limit pumping under the new law. This is one significant challenge with implementing groundwater sustainability. The law is designed for public bodies to step up groundwater management. While agriculture relies on irrigation districts that qualify as public bodies to represent agricultural interests in some basins, many have no public entities to fully represent the interests of agriculture. Often representation of diverse agriculture interests falls to county governments and elected officials. Concerns about the ability of government staff to be able to represent agricultural interests are leading agriculture to innovate and organize to form new public bodies. For example, the Sonoma County Farm Bureau has been advocating creation of irrigation districts to secure supply of water for agriculture and contribute to the sustainability of groundwater resources. Two of the three medium-priority basins took an approach to establish an agricultural water district through an election process with the Local Agency Formation Commission while the third basin took a legislative approach. The first group ended up resurrecting an existing dormant district and transforming it to a larger and more representative district to serve on the groundwater agency. The paper will discuss the merits and challenges of these different approaches, looking at both negotiation theory and practical case experience to examine options for representing agricultural interests to support unifying diverse agricultural interests to engage effectively as “one voice” in groundwater management.