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Local ag interests raise concerns about state water board's proposed work toward racial equity

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The Kern River is dry at the Weir Water Control near Riverview Park in this October 2020 file photo.

A far-reaching proposal to prioritize racial equity at the State Water Resources Control Board has drawn skeptical responses from two influential organizations representing Kern County farmers and agricultural water districts.

In letters to the water board late last month, the Kern County Farm Bureau and the Kern Groundwater Authority expressed concern that the draft resolution could disrupt local water rights and impair progress toward sustainability. Both organizations also volunteered to take part in a stakeholder advisory panel, if such a group is formed, to help guide the measure's implementation.

"The expansive language of the draft resolution makes it vitally important for stakeholders to directly participate in the development of the action plan," KGA Chairman Dan Waterhouse wrote in a July 28 letter to the water board.

The urgency of the letters underscores the fundamental changes that could arise if the water board moves forward with a proposal that would commit the agency to making racial equity, diversity, inclusion and environmental justice central to its work.

The water board influences how California water-rights disputes are resolved, and it has a primary role in enforcing the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, which has become a big focus for local water districts. The agency also makes loans and grants for small water systems serving disadvantaged communities in the Central Valley and elsewhere.

Its proposed racial-equity resolution was partly inspired by public demonstrations that followed last year's in-custody death of George Floyd. The measure calls for state actions toward dismantling systems that perpetuate racial inequities, including in project permitting, enforcement, funding and administering of water rights.

Environmental justice organizations have spoken in favor of the proposal, saying it would help address drinking-water pollution in minority communities and bring new balance to how water is divided between agricultural and residential uses.

Farm bureau President John C. Moore III's letter said his organization supports the water board's exercising its role and duties to benefit the public regardless of race, sex, color, ethnicity or national origin. But he took a different tone regarding the draft resolution's proposal to dismantle systems under the board's authority.

"KCFB would like clarification," he wrote, "on the specific systems the (water board) intends to dismantle and is interested if and how the dismantling of such systems would impact private property and water rights for farmers and ranchers."

Moore's letter went on to offer the board's help in developing any action plan, and it encouraged the formation of an advisory board.

The letter by the Kern Groundwater Authority, which coordinates groundwater compliance plans for the majority of local water agencies, was similar in several respects to that of the farm bureau.

It said the agency supports the water board's administration of its duties and authorities for the benefit of all Californians regardless of race, sex, color, ethnicity or national origin. It also called attention to the potential dismantling of systems under the board's authority.

"Although this language is likely to be limited to dismantling specific inequalities," Waterhouse's letter states, "if such language were to be expanded to affect the administration of the water right priority system, the ability of the KGA to achieve sustainability or implement its (state-ordered groundwater sustainability plan) could be compromised."

It said the KGA requests the draft resolution be changed to include development of an advisory panel that would partner with water board staff in development of an action plan.

"The KGA pledges to work collaboratively with the State Water Board and its staff and requests it be considered for inclusion in the stakeholder advisory panel," Waterhouse wrote.

The water board was unable Thursday afternoon to provide comment on requests and recommendations contained in the farm bureau's and the groundwater authority's letters.