In 1999, the landowners of the Broadview Water District (BWD) in the grasslands of western Fresno County collectively decided that it might be in their best interest to quit farming their land. Five years later, they appear on the verge of closing a deal to sell their land and water supply in an unprecedented deal.
The landowners of the BWD are in escrow with the Pajaro Valley Water Management Agency (PVWMA) to sell virtually all the land (9,100 acres) and all the water supply (27,000 acre feet per year) for $25 million. The deal is set to close by July 24.
The PVWMA plans to transport the water via pipeline to the coast, where the water will help balance the effects of a regional groundwater overdraft that is causing saltwater intrusion and endangering crops. According to Charles McNiesh, PVWMA general manager, once the deal goes through, the BWD land may be sold back to private interests, minus the water supply.
A California Environmental Quality Act review is set to be completed next month. In order to reassign the BWD water service contract, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation must approve the plans through the National Environmental Policy Act process. McNiesh is optimistic, saying that both processes appear to be going smoothly.
Although the BWD land is still viable farmland, many longstanding issues would need to be addressed for agriculture to have a future, said Joe McGahan of Summers Engineering, the drainage coordinator for the Grassland Basin Drainers. Due to irrigation upslope as well as irrigation within the BWD, and the presence of a layer of impermeable clay underlying the region, the water table is rising and the salinity level in the root zone could soon become toxic. Continued farming would require substantial investment in drainage and water treatment (see CP&DR Legal Digest, March 2000).
To complicate matters, the region’s high levels of selenium, a potentially toxic element that ends up in the farm runoff, would necessitate treatment to meet environmental regulations. Factoring in additional uncertainty in the district’s water supply from the Central Valley Project makes these improvements particularly risky and expensive for the BWD.
Since the 1990s the BWD has repeatedly been faced with investors looking to buy individual properties as a means of acquiring a transportable water supply. After many years, the agency, distracted from its goal of managing the water contract, attempted to resolve the matter by issuing a single request for proposals from prospective buyers. Interestingly, in matters of land transactions, the BWD holds no legal powers. Although the BWD is a “landowner voting district,” with 30 landowners selecting a board of five, the district cannot bind its landowners to sell their land. Instead, the district agreed to act as facilitator for the deal at the landowners’ request, a job for which it was well suited, said BWD General Counsel Gary Sawyers.
The County of Fresno opposes the water transfer and its corresponding loss of agricultural production, jobs, and revenue. The county worries that precedents set now may have implications for years to come. The county has threatened to file suit to block the project.
There is also some dissent among the farmers and residents of the Pajaro Valley, said Lisa Dobbins of the community group Action Pajaro Valley. Funding for the purchase and the pipeline was narrowly approved through a 2002 ballot measure, resulting in an increase in per-acre augmentation fees paid by farmers. As a result, the cost will be shared equally by coastal farmers and inland farmers, while only coastal farmers must deal directly with saltwater intrusion. Many people worry that small farmers may be less able to shoulder the additional costs, while other people are concerned that the water will be used to support urban growth rather than agriculture. The PVWMA charter places agricultural needs first.
To offset some of the project’s expense, the PVWMA has signed agreements with the Santa Clara Valley Water District (SCVWD) and the Westlands Water District. Westlands will be sold half of the water supply, while the other half is to be divided between PVWMA and SCVWD. The Santa Clara Valley district will use water only during dry years, and will supply water to PVWMA in wet years, ensuring that PVWMA has enough water on average to meet its basin management plan’s recommendations for stemming saltwater intrusion.
Meanwhile, Fresno county struggles with keeping the Westside as a profitable agricultural area. Besides water transfers, the water supply is uncertain and there have been suggestions of retiring much of this land for habitat restoration or urban growth (see CP&DR Environment Watch, February 2002). Still, many farmers have vowed to stay in the game, said McGahan, the region’s drainage coordinator. Whether or not they will get government assistance with drainage, an issue with decades of legal history, remains to be seen.
Charles McNiesh, Pajaro Valley Water Management Agency, (831) 722-9292.
Lisa Dobbins, Action Pajaro Valley, (831) 786-8536.
Joe McGahan, Summers Engineering, (559) 582-9237.
Gary Sawyers, Broadview Water District counsel, (559) 438-5656.