Water rights transfers bring big bucks and controversy

FRESNO, Calif.

Farmers, like Phil Erro are worried it will eventually mean less water for everybody else in the Valley. "My concern about surface water leaving the region is that as it is the surface water that we have acquired over the last 80 years we don't have enough water as it is with that much surface water. Now, if we export those rights we are going to have to deal with even less water."

But the growers who are selling say it's because they can't get enough water to stay in business, so, they have to sell the rights to what they have.

Ernest Conant an attorney for a Bakersfield law firm is handling the latest transaction. "The only reason they are considering selling is they have to minimize their losses because it's an unreliable water supply that they now have with the new environmental constraints."

We're in Irvine where some of that Kings County irrigation water will end up. Now, we don't know if any of it will be put in this decorative lake, but a lot of folks think water destined for farms should stay on the farm.

Kings County farmer Doug Verboon is one of those folks. "If I was to sell my water today for high dollars then it would be useless to the next person behind me. This is good ground, the best ground in the world. If we sell the water it's a desert." He said.

Verboon grows Walnuts in Kings County. He's afraid the high prices set by these transfers will encourage more farmers to sell their water rights. Permanent water transfers are not new, but the price being paid for the water in these deals is cause for alarm.

The first sale of 14,000 acre feet of water rights from Dudley Ridge was worth $ 73 million. The second deal for both land and 4 thousand acre feet of water rights was worth $16 million.

The latest deal in the works would transfer rights to two thousand acre feet of water for nearly $12 million to the Tejon Ranch Company, which has plans for major development in their four hundred square mile property South and East of Bakersfield.

Barry Zoeller is a spokesman for the company. "We believe as a philosophy you can never have too much water. Especially in California. So, when water is available, and where we may have a need for it in the future, if we are able to obtain that water, it makes good sense to do so."

But these high priced deals moving farm water to cities have attracted attention. Senator Dianne Feinstein expressed her concern on a recent visit to the Central Valley. "I think gouging on water is not the right thing to do and we will take a careful look at it."

A measure to put some restrictions on these permanent transfers failed to pass in the legislature this year but State Assembly Member Jared Huffman, who heads the Assembly's Water Committee, believes these transfers will be looked at again. "The type of ag-to urban transfers we've started to see, where that water is sold at a very high price and a huge profit margin and leaves the region permanently requires us to ask some hard questions about those transfers."

And farmer Doug Verboon, won a seat on the Kings County Board of Supervisors in the November election, with one goal, to keep water in the Valley. "Water is the number one issue for me. We've got to keep every drop of water here as long as we can. It's what made the valley strong and we don't need to be selling it to anybody else."

The board of the Dudley Ridge Water District will vote on the latest transfer deal to Tejon Ranch at their meeting on December 6th.

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