Two Cracks
By Trudy Wischemann
1:23 pm,
November 24, 2023

In last week’s column, “Good Neighbors,” I referred to a crack in state water law that I think we, as citizens of the United States of America, should stand shoulder to shoulder to open wider. Unfortunately, there’s another crack that some people would prefer to see widened, and my job right now is to explain why I wouldn’t.

Water law is not a juicy topic, so I don’t blame you if you turn your back on this column and go back to basting your turkey. But right now the fate of our local food producers, the “real farmers,” as I called them last week, is blowing in the wind, being decided in real time, day by day, by people who don’t live here and don’t know what it means to have everything hanging on the line in a hurricane.

There’s something I also need to correct from last week. I may have sounded dismissive of some of the “elephants in the room” identified by folks who spoke before the State Water Resources Control Board at the Tulare Lake Subbasin public workshop. I did not mean to disparage their reasons, even if it sounded that way. I was just trying to give a sample of the multiple other explanations being offered for our groundwater conundrums because they were useful and correct, even if they carried political baggage in the way they were explained. Please forgive me if I stepped on your elephant’s toes – I’m clumsy sometimes.

An “elephant in the room,” of course, is what we call the things not spoken that really matter, and for me the biggest elephant was the fact that the pending restrictions (and the fees that go with them) threaten our resident, landowning/land-maintaining growers far more than the corporate absentee giant operations in the lakebed. No one mentioned that, not even the resident growers themselves. But giving the big boys yet one more government-sponsored advantage is suicide, not just for our farmer neighbors but also the rest of us in this region who depend on the economy they create as well as the food they produce. 

Now, to the cracks. The crack I see comes from a law journal article by Louise Nelson Dyble, which made the case that because the SGMA process was designed to be inclusive and democratic, special districts like water/water storage and irrigation districts, which are governed by landowners only, should not be permitted to participate. Her argument is more elaborate and well-argued than that, and I invite any water lawyers to join me in examining her points. While I agree that the decisions regarding groundwater need to be democratically determined, with all resident voices of a groundwater basin at the table, her analysis of what’s skewing the process misses the devil in the details. 

Where Dyble draws the offending line is between landowning and nonlandowning classes of people, claiming the one-person, one-vote principle expressed in the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution applies, or should apply in the local agencies responsible for groundwater management. Some of the GSAs actually do include an appropriate range of stakeholders; it’s when water districts dominate the GSA process that undemocratic rule occurs. While eliminating landownership as a voter criterion might correct a longstanding omission of who sits at the table, by itself it will do nothing to change who gets to eat or drink.

The crack I see starts a little higher up, between the two basic kinds of special districts governing our surface water supplies: irrigation districts, with their one-person, one-vote structure (among all landowners within the district) and water/water storage districts, with voting based on percentage of total district land. Both kinds of district have no provision for voting by people who are not agland-owning water users, but they differ radically in voting structures for people who are. 

In irrigation districts, voting is one vote per landowner within the district, regardless of how much land they own or where they live. (The water codes governing the formation of an irrigation district require a vote by regular registered voters in the county in which the district is being formed. This provides greater local control at the outset than the water codes governing formation of water/water storage districts, which allows only owners of land to vote and does not require local residence.)

In water/water storage districts, voting is “property-weighted,” i.e., the more land you own, the greater your number of votes. Ownership of 50% or more of the land gives the owner the majority voice, which means that as much as 49.9% of the land is owned by people with no voice whatsoever in the decisions made in that district, including indebtedness. It’s taxation without representation for most of the district’s landed folks. When it comes to flood time, as it did in the Tulare Lake Basin this year and many years past, the majority landowner called the shots about who got flooded and who didn’t, regardless of the outrageous difference in damages caused by the flooding to his neighbors, or to the taxpayers of the state who were forced to rapidly invest in infrastructure to protect endangered communities.

That’s where I believe we should draw the line: between the anti-democratic structure of water/water storage districts, and the more-democratic structure of irrigation districts. The provision for property-weighted voting could be legislated out of existence, which would reduce the power of investment-driven corporate agribusiness and give our resident food producers a better prospect for survival. If you’ve enjoyed a good meal this week, we owe them that.

Now go have some pie. After reading this, you’ve earned it!

Trudy Wischemann is a writer/researcher in Lindsay. You can send her your thoughts on water law cracks c/o P.O. Box 1374, Lindsay CA 93247.

This column is not a news article but the opinion of the writer and does not reflect the views of the Mid Valley Times newspaper.

About the Author

Trudy Wischemann
Local writer of the column ‘Notes From Home’