Ron Jacobsma, general manger of the Friant Water Authority, noted what he called "a disturbing trend: Groundwater is not recharging as it used to; the bank is finite."
Birmingham said he expects some type of groundwater regulation to emerge. If regulation is to come, he said he would prefer that it be done on the regional level. Birmingham said growers are split between those who oppose any regulations and those who say it would be better to be proactive and prevent imposition of regulations from agencies that could include the state.
Birmingham said water transfers have helped keep farming alive in Westlands and elsewhere, and said transfers of water from the valley's east side would require infrastructure changes.
A panel on immigration followed the one on water.
"We're here to talk about the other 'gotta-have': labor," said Craig Regelbrugge, co-chair of the Agricultural Coalition for Immigration Reform and vice president for government relations and research with the American Nursery and Landscape Association.
He and others said a broken immigration system has led to labor shortages that have resulted in uncertainty, a lack of food security and economic setbacks that include the loss this year of pears in Northern California and apples in Michigan.
Regelbrugge acknowledged it will be a challenge to get the 218 votes needed to pass immigration reform legislation in the House. And the challenge compounds itself with an election year coming in 2014, followed by the prospect of moving lame-duck legislators afterward, if needed.
Advocate Monte Lake with the firm CJ Lake said the issue of immigration reform "is more important to the Central Valley than to anywhere." The region has a significant share of the 2 million farmworkers in the nation, most of them immigrants.
Lake said stepped-up action by Immigration and Customs Enforcement in the form of raids on packinghouses and other agricultural operations has had a chilling effect.
Among those who traveled to Washington earlier in the week as part of a Bibles, Badges and Businesses lobbying effort was Fresno County Sheriff Margaret Mims.
"As a public safety official, I find it heartbreaking (that) a sector of our community is afraid of us," Mims said, referring to "an inherent fear" among undocumented workers who fail to report crimes against them.
Jock O'Connell, with Beacon Economics, closed the conference with a talk on challenges the San Joaquin Valley will face from a burgeoning population, climate change and political gridlock.
He said foreign trade and investment will play a bigger role in California's economy.