Experts say only 36 percent of Californians would approve a major water bond issue today in a state that is riddled with debt and a projected continuing budget deficit reaching into the billions.

While the fiscal malaise continues to hang over the state like a black cloud, California’s water crisis is really the No. 1 mess facing this state, according to agricultural lobbyist/attorney and Hanford, Calif., dairyman George Soares.

Soares, whose law firm represents a host of agricultural and commodity groups, told the annual Western Cotton Shippers Association conference at Harris Ranch on the West Side of the San Joaquin Valley that California’s water crisis is in a race against money, politics and time.

Agriculture has mounted a well-funded, well-orchestrated headline-grabbing campaign to improve those odds. California’s water crisis now has a face; a human element that for the first time focuses on people rather than farms and farmers.

Soares told the annual conference of cotton merchants that there are photographs in the state Capitol of thousands of farmworkers, farmers, business owners, town mayors and others marching head down into howling, dust choking wind on the West Side of the San Joaquin Valley last spring. They were marching for water in an area that has 40-percent unemployment because the drought and environmental laws have reduced the water supply to one of the most productive agricultural areas in the world.

Politicians and bureaucrats see those photos and read the headlines that continue to herald California’s water crisis.

Soares says agriculture is “seriously engaged” with “direct involvement” in efforts to increase the state’s water supply and delivery system that was built to service 20 million in a state with a current population of 38 million.

Everyone is “desperate to one degree or another” for current and future water supplies which bring all political elements of the state together. Heretofore, the state water crisis has been primarily an agricultural issue. Now it cuts across the spectrum and is statewide.

A regular legislative session failed to reach a compromise water package to put on the ballot. Soares said the emphasis is not for the governor to call a special session to deal with the water crisis. Soares said the “momentum” to reach an agreement will continue into the fall and next year.

He said there must be a comprehensive water bond on the ballot in 2010. Term limits will change the structure of the Legislature afterwards. Following that, “we have to start all over” with a significant batch of new legislators. “We do not have time to start over,” remarked Soares.

Agriculture has put a “human face” on the water crisis in the fields and that has given the issue considerable traction with the public and the politicians; it will take more than that to solve the issue. It will take political coalitions.

One of the strongest voices in resolving the water crisis has been the Latino political caucus. It is the strongest caucus in the Legislature with 26 members. “This caucus is sensitive to the human conditions brought on by a lack of water for agriculture,” he says. This group of legislators has put together one of the most comprehensive water solution packages yet.

“Trade unions are part of this effort. When is the last time a union stood up for us in ag? The carpenters’ union said they supported the Latino caucus’ water package.”

The water crisis is a jobs issue with many unions, according to Soares.

Amazingly, the United Farm Workers of America have not supported the water bond measures. The UFW has boycotted marches and rallies focusing on the water crisis. Soares said the UFW recently donated $1 million to defeat a water bond issue. That may seem puzzling, but Soares explained that the UFW is allied with the state workers union. These groups do not want the bond issue to pass because the debt service to finance a major bond issue might take money from state workers.

The focus of the water crisis is the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. It is in need of repair and it is also the hub for controversy. Many farmers and towns in the Delta do not want a canal built because they see it as a threat to the Delta’s water quality.

Soares said ag must embrace the concerns of the Delta and work to restore the Delta as well as improve water conveyed through or around it.

However, the Delta is only part of what must be a comprehensive water bond package that includes above and underground storage and water rights issues.

It will take a solid coalition to get a comprehensive package passed.

“I call it relationships … relationship to relevancy. Unfortunately, everyone in ag does not appreciate that relationships have value. Without relationships we will not have success,” he says.

He cited the appeal in 2001 of the state tax on farm equipment. Soares said this was the result of relationships created with urban legislators. It was a victory for ag that continues to pay off to the tune of $150 million in savings for agriculture.

“It has been eight years since the tractor tax victory and it is still intact, even after this year’s budget crisis,” said Soares.

The long time Hanford resident did not guarantee victory for a 2010 water bond issue. “It is too soon to tell if all segments of society will be with us,” said Soares. However, he made it clear agriculture has a dog in the fight with perhaps a better chance of winning than ever before.

It is a daunting task with a dysfunctional fiscal system that continues to allow the state to spend more than it takes in.

Soares admits to bewilderment with a process that results in political leaders being happy reducing the deficit from $26 billion to $5 billion in the last state budget. That $5 billion, projects Soares, will likely grow to $15 billion by the spring. However, the attitude remains that it’s better than $26 billion.

“The budget will continue to be a problem long term in this state,” Soares told the farmers and cotton merchants at the WCSA gathering.

email: hcline@farmpress.com