By JUSTIN SCHECK
Associated Press/Article from the Wall Street Journal
Central Valley farmer Marvin Meyers set up a water bank to guard against supply disruptions.
LOCKEFORD, Calif.—Some of the farmers here in the rural Central Valley have been seeking a new tax levy for their water system. Dwindling groundwater, they say, is endangering the water supply.
"None of us likes to pay taxes. But this is our water," said Tom Hoffman, a pro-tax farmer who has 140 acres of wine grapes here and until recently sat on the local water board.
But voters here already have rejected the proposed levy, and last fall elected a firmly antitax group of members to the North San Joaquin Water Conservation District board. "No new taxes," said Hugh Scanlon, a newly elected Republican member. That "is the pledge I made to the people."
The post-election dispute in North San Joaquin is part of a debate being played out in communities nationwide, as politicians elected in last fall's elections grapple with spending requests by local constituents.
Without the levy, and the groundwater-recharge system it would fund, local water officials say, wells will eventually dry up and become contaminated with salt water from the nearby San Francisco Bay Delta.
But the newly elected members of the commission say the local economy is in no shape to increase the tax burden on residents. San Joaquin County had an 18% unemployment rate in December, up from 17% the year before and well above the nationwide rate of 9.4%.
Mr. Scanlon and his allies say the levy, which would charge about $21 a year per residence and more for those who use large amounts of water, amounts to a subsidy for farmers and contravenes the will of local voters.
Voters here already had rejected an earlier tax effort before last fall's election. In last year's campaign, water-board candidates focused largely on their opposition to any reinstatement of the levy.
Bryan Pilkington, the chairman of the North San Joaquin water board who has spearheaded opposition to the local tax, said that in rejecting the measure, voters were expressing frustration with politicians who had tried to impose taxes against the voters' will. Big agricultural interests in the area, such as wine-grape growers, were trying to get money from residential water users, he said.
The tax fight in the Lockeford area—where 42% of registered voters are Republican and 39% Democratic—has its roots in California's longstanding struggles with a limited supply of fresh water. While Lockeford sits alongside a river, much of that water was granted decades ago to other parts of the state. A canal to bring water from another river was never completed.
That leaves farmers here to pump water from the ground, which now takes place at a faster rate than groundwater is replenished, said Mel Lytle, San Joaquin County's water-resources coordinator. Nearby water districts have imposed taxes to pay for groundwater-recharge systems.
In 2007, the district instituted a pumped-groundwater tax to fund pipelines for river water, which the state granted to replenish the aquifer. Residential water users would pay about $21 per year; farmers would pay $4.20 per "acre foot," equivalent to 326,000 gallons. The fee was expected to boost the district's annual budget from $250,000 to about $1 million.
But almost immediately Mr. Pilkington, a third-grade teacher, voiced the protests of a group of residents. Mr. Pilkington said the tax was a "moral issue" and questioned whether it would address long-term water problems. "Money in the bank doesn't create rain," he said.
To head off a possible lawsuit from opponents, who complained the tax was not put before voters, the water district sought a legal opinion. A local court said it was legal.
But in 2008, Mr. Pilkington won a water-board seat and led a successful ballot measure to stop the fee until it got voter approval. A later state appeals-court ruling said the district could keep collecting the fee only through July 2009.
Since then, other board members, along with Ed Steffani, the district's general manager, have tried to craft a new fee that voters would approve. In November, the tax failed and voters elected two of Mr. Pilkington's antitax allies—including Mr. Scanlon—to the five-member water board, effectively settling the matter for now.
But the debate hasn't gone away. At a water-board meeting last month, farmers shouted at Mr. Pilkington for refusing to consider new ways to raise the money.
"My well went dry last year," said Mike Ratto, a farmer who raised sheep on an acre of land here until his well started faltering two years ago.
Mr. Ratto said he recently paid more than $9,000 for a well that goes down 240 feet to reach fresh water. Write to Justin Scheck at firstname.lastname@example.org