A Simple Solution For California Water

August 2010
by Charles L. Barra
If California does not provide an adequate water supply at a reasonable cost to its agriculture industry, competition from globalization will soon turn the state into a third-world country.

Most of the people working to resolve California water problems seem to have a hard time understanding the economic impact that a lack of reasonably priced water has on the California economy—and how this directly affects working families and the state’s tax base.

When agricultural land is abandoned, or fruit trees and grapevines are taken out because water is in short supply or too expensive, the assessed value of the property goes down. This results in decreased revenues for local services and the loss of jobs for working families. Additionally, there is a measurable decrease in income from production, which reduces income taxes to state and federal governments by billions of dollars.

So, while on the surface the loss of some vineyards or orchards might not seem that devastating to a local economy, the impact is actually quite far-reaching.

We must change the direction that we have been going and make an investment to come up with new, innovative ways to support the agricultural endeavors we’ve already developed to help move our economy forward.

The “first need” to alleviate the shortage of water supply to our growing population is to build reservoir systems that store more rainwater during the winter rainy season. This water would be used for frost protection during the winter months and for irrigation during the dry summers. The sale of water would more than repay the cost of developing these reservoirs. The savings realized from building fish-friendly reservoirs that replenish themselves with each winter’s rains at no cost should be evident to the governor and the legislature. These reservoirs should be built high in the mountains to provide gravity flow, thus cutting down on the cost of operation. 

Back in the early 1960s, I invested in a reliable water supply by building five reservoirs to solve our frost and irrigation problems for a 175-acre vineyard. The savings over the years (compared with buying the water) have computed to more than $1.5 million.

Last winter, farmers along the Russian River were harangued by all applicable state agencies for pumping water for frost protection. If reservoirs (which refill with water every winter) were encouraged, instead of being hampered by the permitting process, building these reservoirs would alleviate much of the water shortage farmers experienced in 2009.

On again, off again
With the recent on-again, off-again discussions at the state level regarding yet another water bond referendum, it becomes quite obvious that the legislature is missing the big picture.

We recognize that they have been struggling for three decades with an attempt to come up with a solution to the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta problem as well as replacement of infrastructure, etc.  But the fact that they were even considering a measure that doesn’t allocate predominant funds for the “first need,” which is water storage throughout California, is frightening.

And I believe that if you ask the cities and county water districts, the general population was able to conserve water during last year’s drought by approximately 15%. Conservation measures were so successful that most agencies are complaining about the loss of revenue and want to raise water rates to cover those losses.

These conservation measures were implemented the old-fashioned way—with newspaper articles and direct-mail pieces sent by the local agencies.

So wouldn’t a better solution for moving water storage and conservation to the forefront be to create joint powers agreements among the federal, state, county and city governments to sell bonds to fund the needed projects?

Sometimes we overlook the simple solutions that lie right in front of us. Our dollars and our efforts should be focused on water storage. The return on investment when taking into account the sale of water, plus the increase in tax revenue from the agricultural products sold, would be in the billions of dollars.

For 65 years Charles L. Barra has been growing organic grapes in Mendocino County, where he has been deeply involved in California water issues. He also is the owner of BARRA of Mendocino, Girasole Vineyards and Redwood Valley Cellars in Mendocino County. To comment on this Viewpoint, e-mail


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