SACRAMENTO (CBS13) — A new proposal in the California Senate includes using taxpayer money to buy out farmers’ water rights.

The $1.5 billion plan would see the government purchase “senior water rights” for the purpose of benefitting endangered fish species in the state.

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Proponents argue it’s an opportunity to conserve not just water but types of salmon that are rapidly facing possible extinction while possibly paving the way for environmental water rights. Opponents believe it could force farmers to give up their long-held rights and potentially set a precedent for further rollbacks of those rights.

“This is give a little to save a lot because once we lose species we can never get them back,” says John McManus, executive director of Golden State Salmon.

While details are relatively light on the specifics of the proposal, McManus argues that $1.5 billion doesn’t equate to any large-scale takeback against the agricultural sector.

“This is no threat to irrigated agriculture in California. It’s not going anywhere. The $1.5 billion may sound like a lot of money but it’s not a lot in the grand scheme of things,” he said. “We’re talking about the possibility of providing a small amount of additional water to keep species currently on life support from going extinct and hopefully to rebuild the population.”

The salmon industry is currently a $900 million a year industry in the state of California but multiple different species of California coast and seasonal run salmon are either threatened or on the endangered list. McManus sees the proposal and land rights buybacks as a way to not only save some species but allow the numbers to grow and continue to be a viable industry within the state’s food sector.

“The Salmon industry in California is one of those rare industries that relies on a natural product that needs to be sustainably managed.”

“This is really a plan that’s aiming in that direction of having and farms on the landscapes simultaneously in a more sustainable way,” says Andrew Rypel, co-director of the UC Davis Center for Watershed Services. “The trick is how do we give people a thriving economy on the landscape that is in cooperation with nature rather than opposed to it. And that’s a really hard thing to figure out.”

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Democratic house representative Josh Harder said in a statement: “My priority is making sure the Central Valley’s voice is heard in every conversation on water and we always have a seat at the table. I’m open to this plan, but it has to be done in a way that protects our Valley farmers, ranchers and families.”

Some that are familiar with the proposal express concern about the plan of what it could mean for farmers and families that sit on land or possess water rights that the state may covet. Mike Wade, executive director of the California Farm Water Coalition, believes a collaborative approach may be a better solution than one that has the potential to put farmers at odds with the government. He argues that buying back rights can mean a permanent end to some farms which can in turn have unintended consequences on agriculture in the state long term.

“We’re buying farmland to retire it and use that water for environmental purposes when we have other options,” Wade explains. “Investing in water storage is one thing. Investing in our habitat to protect salmon is another.”

With 98 percent of the state facing severe drought conditions, some farmers have seen their water allocation cut significantly. Opponents of the proposal see buybacks as backing farmers into a corner. With the offer of money and water allocations cut so significantly, Republican state Senator and Gubernatorial candidate Brian Dahle sees the proposal as a potential death knell to a new generation of some farmers.

“Those are private water rights that are owned by farmers and if we don’t have water we’re not gonna have food,” Dahle says. “So you’re not a willing seller until they take your water away from you and you can’t make a living on your land.”

The $1.5 billion will be included in budget discussions revolving around the state’s surplus. Dahle thinks that the money could be used for other types of water storage that he argues can be used for conservation. The state Senator pointed to the proposed Sites Reservoir in Colusa as a potential solution for water storage that wouldn’t demand farmers give up their land or water rights. The project is on track to break ground in 2024 with a substantial portion of the project going to environmental uses.

“We have $97 billion in a budget surplus here at the Capitol and we’re not putting money toward building reservoirs,” Dahle said.

The discussion will likely continue and intensify as more details of the proposal are brought to the table. Rypel, back at UC Davis, poses the question that everyone is looking to answer.

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“How can we harmonize 40 million people on the landscape with very sensitive ecosystems that have specific environmental needs?” he said.

Andrew Haubner