IT ISN’T JUST THE LAND THAT’S FOUGHT OVER – IT’S THE WATER, TOO

It Isn’t Just the Land That’s Fought Over- It’s The Water, Too
The Sacramento Bee
October 18, 1998
Author: Dale Kasler Bee Staff Writer

It isn’t much to look at, a narrow 835-acre parcel of so-so quality farmland in the middle of nowhere.

To Grupe Development Co., though, it’s a thing of beauty – not the corn, sugar beets and alfalfa so much as the concrete canal bordering the north side of the tract.

The canal is filled with shimmering water from the federal government’s Central Valley Project, and that’s what Grupe wants. The developer purchased this property from farmer Jean Sagouspe about 18 months ago in order to divert the water 80 miles northwest, via a series of canals, to a subdivision Grupe has planned west of the fast-growing city of Tracy.

But Fresno County is suing to block the arrangement. Grupe Development’s plan would lead to “unmitigated depletion of groundwater and loss of agricultural land in the county of Fresno,” the lawsuit says. Grupe denies the allegation, saying the land won’t go out of production.

This legal squabble fro! m the heart of the San Joaquin Valley illustrates a critical subplot in the story of California’s disappearing farmland: Water is as precious as soil.

Farmers fear that diversion of water to cities could weaken their increasingly tenuous grip on the land. They are suspicious if not downright hostile about any development project that could reduce agriculture’s water supply.

So, while no one is proposing to build houses in Firebaugh, the Grupe plan brings the inseparable, twin specters of dwindling water and disappearing farmland to the front porches of farmers miles from any suburb.

“We have a policy in Fresno County that water does not leave the county,” said Phil Larson, president of the county Farm Bureau.

Farmers are especially concerned about drought years, when they would have to compete with their new suburban neighbors for diminished supplies of water.

“When that reservoir starts going dry, who’s going to get the water? The urban development,” said general manager Dan Nelson of the San Luis & Delta-Mendota Water Authority, which delivers water from the Central Valley Project to cities and farms on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley. “Once they’re built, as a practical matter the houses are going to get water in the seventh year of a drought.”

The Grupe case is by no means the only example of the importance of water in the farmland issue.

On the west side of the valley, farmers have volunteered to sell thousands of acres of environmentally troubled land to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which would “retire” the parcels. But the program was stalled until the government agreed recently to let those parcels’ water remain in the Westlands Water District, the farm-water association that encompasses much of the troubled area. In effect, Westlands said it would surrender land but not water.

“We have long believed that whatever happens to the land, we should keep the water,” said Nelson, whose organization delivers water to Westland! s farmers.

In Madera County, farmers are watching with concern as suburban Fresno begins sprawling into their heavily agricultural county. What worries them isn’t really the paving over of the land; it’s the taking of the region’s water, said Roger Galleano, chairman of the water and planning committee of the Madera Farm Bureau.

Although Madera farm groups and developers are discussing a solution – underground basins to catch floodwater for replenishing dwindling groundwater supplies – the agricultural forces remain wary.

“Any development that stands to impact agricultural water supplies is what we’re concerned about,” said Stephen Ottemoeller, general manager of the Madera Irrigation District.

Nelson said uncertainty about water supplies sometimes persuades farmers to sell their land to developers. “People say, “Ag is selling out.’ But we’ve put them in a position where they have to,” Nelson said.

To remedy that problem, Marc Reisner, the environmental writer who wrote the acclaimed book on the West’s water, “Cadillac Desert,” has advocated guaranteeing farmers a reliable water supply “as a powerful incentive for farmland protection.”

At the heart of the matter is the 1992 Central Valley Project Improvement Act, a sweeping federal law that rewrote the rules for delivering CVP water.

Among other things, in recognition of California’s growing population, the act set up guidelines to encourage farmers to sell their water rights for urban development.

But proposals to ship agricultural water for urban use have generated plenty of controversy. Farmers around here are still upset by ex-Assemblyman Rusty Areias’ aborted attempt a few years ago to sell water from his Los Banos dairy farm to the giant Metropolitan Water District of Los Angeles.

Though it’s a much smaller proposal, the Grupe plan is significant because it would represent the first permanent sale of ag water to cities under the 1992 law, Nelson said.

In the early ’90’ s, Grupe was drawing up blueprints for Tracy Hills, a 5,500-unit housing project just west of Tracy, a booming city receiving spillover population from the East Bay.

Tracy Hills had everything but water. It set out to find some from a farmer.

Under the rules governing the valley’s water districts, farmers can’t sell their water rights without the blessing of the other farmers in that district. But there are a handful of farmers who constitute an entire district – and therefore don’t need their neighbors’ permission to transfer water.

“We went looking for a single-family water district,” said Doug Unruh, Grupe’s project manager for Tracy Hills.

It found the Widren Water District near Firebaugh, owned by Sagouspe. Its 835 acres had rights to enough water from the Central Valley Project to nourish the Tracy Hills project, Unruh said.

Grupe took an option on the land about eight years ago and made the purchase in early 1997. It paid him about $2,500 an acre – a little more than what Sagouspe paid for it – and in exchange agreed to lease the land to him at a significant discount, Sagouspe said.

But after applying to the Bureau of Reclamation for permission to transfer the water, Grupe found itself locking horns with Fresno County.

The county sued Grupe and the city of Tracy over the proposed arrangement, saying the water transfer would take the land out of production – or force the farmer to pump groundwater to make up for the loss.

Though he didn’t get sued, Sagouspe drew the wrath of some of his fellow farmers.

“He’s a very good grower,” said the farm bureau’s Larson. “He knows better than that.”

Sagouspe, though, said his critics have it all wrong.

He’s not “selling out agriculture,” he said. “I don’t believe in taking all the water out of ag and selling it or taking or stealing it or whatever.”

Yes, the Widren water would leave Fresno County, he said. But no, the land wouldn’t go out of production. He would pump some groundwater and use surface water to which he has rights from some adjacent districts, he said.

Well versed in water issues – he’s president of a water district serving nearby Los Banos – the 51-year-old farmer said he should be applauded by other farmers.

“These cities are going to grow anyway,” he said. “They’re going to have to get the water from somewhere. (Farmers) have always been criticized for having too much water. This takes some of the pressure off.”

Indeed, he believes his proposal could serve as a role model of sorts.

“This is an ideal type of transfer that other people down the road can follow,” Sagouspe said.