As more large development proposals rely on water transfers to meet expected urban needs, the complexity of such transfers becomes apparent. Water transfers can engender strong opposition, especially from people in the area that would lose the water, and sizeable water transfers continue to hit major snags. At least four giant development projects, several Central Valley cities, and one Southern California water agency intend to siphon water from farmland to new homes and businesses. But all of these water transfers can have multiple effects, ranging from groundwater depletion to impacts on a farm-based economy. In Northern California, where most of the state's rain falls, many farmers, environmentalists and public officials hold strong negative opinions about the idea of transferring "their" water to subdivisions and businesses in metropolitan regions. Fallowing Sacramento Valley farmland for the benefit of urban growth makes no sense, said Barbara Vlamis, executive director of the high-profile Butte Environmental Council. Such action makes money for one landowner, but it hurts farmworkers and agricultural-dependent businesses, she said. "They want water in Southern California, and there are eager and greedy people in Northern California who will sell their community down the river to make money," Vlamis said during the California Water Policy Conference in Los Angeles in October. That extreme view is not uncommon in some water-wealthy areas, and it could pose an obstacle to proposed water transfers. Among them: o The Tracy Hills project of 5,500 homes and 500 acres of commercial development in Tracy. To get water, the Grupe Co. purchased all 1,000 acres in the Widren Water District near Firebaugh. The developer then appointed directors who agreed to transfer about 3,000 acre-feet of water to Tracy Hills. Fresno County, however, has filed a lawsuit to prevent the transfer. o The 11,000-unit Dougherty Valley subdivision near Livermore. Shapell Industries has begun building homes in areas served by the East Bay Municipal Utility District. However, a plan to import water from Central Valley farms to serve the bulk of the subdivision is mired in a lawsuit, of which Shapell lost the first round. o The 5,000-unit Diablo Grande subdivision and golf resort in western Stanislaus County. The developer purchased farmland on the valley floor and plans to transfer the water to the project. A coalition of farmers and environmentalists sued to halt the project. (See Legal Digest, page 8.) o The 12,000-acre Newhall Ranch near Santa Clarita, which would contain 21,000 homes and 1,000 acres of commercial and industrial development. A transfer is one of three potential water sources. While these developments rely on more of a private-party approach, several public entities also are pursuing transfers. In August, the Metropolitan Water District, the Imperial Irrigation District and the Coachella Valley Water District agreed to a plan in which IID can ship 200,000 acre-feet of its Colorado River water to the San Diego County Water Authority. The San Diego agency, which serves a growing urban area, would pay Imperial Valley farmers to install water conservation devices. Although plenty of details remain — and both MWD and CVWD have since filed lawsuits — the deal would be the nation's largest transfer of water from agricultural to urban uses. On a smaller scale, the cities of Tracy, Lathrop, Manteca and Escalon have been working on a water transfer with the South San Joaquin Irrigation District to provide for the needs of these rapidly growing towns. This transfer remains only a proposal. To stir the waters even more, several companies — including Western Water Co., Cadiz Inc., U.S. Filter and Vidler Water Co. — have begun purchasing land throughout the state with water rights while waiting for a more formal water market to get established. Clearly, these transfers, whether private or public in nature, will confront major obstacles. Kevin Wolf, a Davis-based water planning consultant, said he has encountered supervisors in rural counties who are dead set against all water transfers. In one instance, a Tehama County supervisor refused even to discuss taking floodplain orchards out of production. Officials in Yolo County have erected as many barriers as possible to water transfers because they fear farmers will sell surface water and then irrigate fields with groundwater, which is viewed as precious, Wolf said. Many small-scale transfers already occur, especially from one agricultural user to another. The transfers that earn attention are those done under purview of the State Water Resources Control Board, said Judith Redmond, of the Community Alliance with Family Farmers in Yolo County. These transfers usually involve a long-term change in land use, such as permanent fallowing of farmland, or a new point of water diversion, she said. Opposition arises because directing irrigation water to urban uses decreases the water available for downstream farming, as agricultural water often gets used repeatedly as it makes its way downstream, explained Redmond, who also spoke at the Water Policy Conference. Such cumulative impacts should be considered before a water-transfer is implemented, Redmond advised. Redmond also spoke of Yolo County transfers during 1991, when county farmers voluntarily removed 13 percent of their farmland from production temporarily. The farmers contributed 96,000 acre-feet of water to the state Drought Water Bank, but a study found 450 people lost jobs as a result. Redmond and Vlamis, of the Butte Environmental Council, said water transfer programs ought to account for local concerns and community input. The Water Education Foundation makes a similar point in a briefing paper: "There also are risks of third party impacts to rural communities and agricultural-related industries if farmers sell their water and quit farming. Agricultural suppliers, farm workers and other related businesses can lose income, which can rock the rural community." Defining the water truly available for transfer also can prove problematic, explained Wolf. The question is whether a farmer may change to more efficient irrigation — which saves surface water but reduces the amount percolating into the groundwater table — and sell the savings, he explained. Thus far, state officials have not answered the question of transferring water that would have been "over-applied" to fields, said Mary Johannis, of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation in Sacramento. "The rules really need to be defined as to what water can be transferred," she said. It appears likely that state lawmakers will either ignore the question or let the governor's administration decide. Lawmakers introduced only three bills during 1999 on water transfers, and they passed only one of them. "It's a hot topic but there are not a lot of members who are interested anymore," said Jennifer Galehouse, an Association of California Water Agencies' lobbyist. The one minor measure the Legislature did pass was SB 970 (Costa), which Gov. Davis signed. The measure clarifies existing water transfer law, says that water transferred for environmental uses is counted as part of a river's mandatory flow, and streamlines the Water Resources Control Board process, according to a Senate bill analysis. Interestingly, the Department of Water Resources urged a veto because it said SB 970's definition of temporary land fallowing contains a loophole. The bill only nibbled at the edges of the Model Water Transfer Act, said Galehouse, whose association backed the legislation. Galehouse predicted legislation that addresses what water is available for transfer might be introduced during 2000. Also one of this year's unsuccessful bills, SB 506, which concerns compensation for conveying transferred water, will return. Contacts: Kevin Wolf, Kevin Wolf & Associates, (530) 758-4211. Mary Johannis, U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, (916) 978-5202. Barbara Vlamis, Butte Environmental Council, (530) 891-6424. Jennifer Galehouse, Association of California Water Agencies, (916) 441-4545. Water Education Foundation website: