Eminent domain initiative divides farmers

SACRAMENTO -- When it comes to water, thirsty California farm groups normally fight as one. But it is water that is behind a growing split in the agriculture community over an eminent domain measure on the June ballot.

Proposition 98, backed by the California Farm Bureau Federation and an anti-tax group, would prohibit governments from seizing property, including farmland, for private use.

But some farm groups -- including the Fresno-based Nisei Farmers League and Western Growers Association -- fear the measure would block use of eminent domain for construction of long-sought pipelines, canals and reservoirs, including one targeted for east of Fresno.

"We're headed down a very bad situation here," said Manuel Cunha Jr., president of the Nisei league. "I look at this and I have great concern for our farmers."

The anti-98 campaign picked up more steam last week when Rep. George Radanovich, R-Mariposa, came out against the measure.

The congressman is normally aligned with the farm bureau and the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, the measure's other backer. But in a letter last week, he said "serious questions have been raised regarding the impact this constitutional initiative will have on our ability to guarantee a plentiful and safe water supply in the future."

The letter was sent to the no-on-Prop. 98 campaign, which plans to use it in campaign materials.

The farm bureau -- which has spent more than $298,000 on the "yes" campaign so far -- is standing by the measure and has support from multiple farm groups, including the California Grain and Feed Association and Fresno Cooperative Raisin Growers Inc.

The bureau "is a strong supporter of creating new reservoirs, and we're a strong supporter of property rights protection," said spokesman Dave Kranz. "Those two interests are both well represented in Prop. 98."

At issue is a single paragraph that would prohibit government from taking private land for the "consumption of natural resources." The language is meant to keep cities from taking water rights.

But Western Growers and other groups said the measure could block acquisition of land for pumps, pipes, canals and water-storage projects.

In the Fresno area, this would add roadblocks to the proposed Temperance Flat reservoir upstream of Millerton Lake, Prop. 98 opponents said. The majority of the targeted land is held by the U.S. government, but portions are under private control, said Mario Santoyo, assistant general manager of the Friant Water Users Authority, which represents east Valley growers.

"There's no question that [Prop. 98] would have some effect on this project," he said.

The farm bureau says its farm brethren are misinterpreting the measure. Prop. 98 still allows land to be taken for public use, including for "public facilities" such as water-storage projects, according to legal advice obtained by the bureau.

"The suggestion that [Prop. 98] would preclude the taking of property for the purpose of constructing a water storage or water conveyance facility because the water stored or conveyed is eventually 'consumed' is unpersuasive," the opinion states.

While eminent domain has rarely been used to take over farm land, the farm bureau fears that cities, eager to expand their boundaries, might use it more, said Kiran Black, the bureau's manager of political affairs.

"Our members expect us to protect family farms and ranches and we believe eminent domain is a real threat," she said.

Eminent domain became a hot issue in the wake of a 2005 Supreme Court ruling that governments could seize private property for the sake of economic development. In 2006, California voters narrowly defeated a measure that would have put sweeping restrictions on eminent domain. Cities strongly opposed it.

This year, Prop. 98 is joined on the ballot by Prop. 99, a more narrowly crafted measure backed by the League of California Cities that would bar governments from seizing owner-occupied residences. No farm groups have signed up to endorse Prop. 99.

Radanovich fears that if Prop. 98 passes, the water question would ultimately be decided by a judge, and "we haven't done very well in front of judges lately," he said in an interview.

Just last week, U.S. District Judge Oliver W. Wanger in Fresno ruled that a federal water plan did not adequately protect salmon -- a decision that will likely lead to further reductions in water deliveries from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

Farm groups have cited such rulings in their drive to get state money to build more canals and dams to shore up the state's water supplies.

But Prop. 98 has divided the normally tight-knit coalition.

Cunha blamed the farm bureau for "rushing to meet a deadline" on the initiative and failing to get the opinion of other farm groups.

"In most cases the farm bureau is pretty open to communicating with all the groups ... but on this one they slipped up," he said.

The bureau shows no signs of backing off.

"We're very confident in the work that we have done to put this initiative together," Black said.

"It is carefully crafted."