It’s Time to Restrict Groundwater Pumping in California

Big Ag is doing irreparable harm to the state's underground water supplies — and for no good reason.

During the past week, Governor Jerry Brown has defended his decision to exempt agriculture from his executive order mandating that consumers slash water consumption by 25 percent this year. Brown has argued that many California farmers are already facing water cutbacks because of the historic drought. And when questioned by ABC’s Martha Raddatz about the fact that agriculture uses 80 percent of California’s available water, while generating only about 2 percent of the state’s economic output, the governor replied: “Yeah, you bet it’s true. But by the way, they’re not watering their lawn or taking longer showers. They’re providing most of the fruits and vegetables of America.”

But Brown’s arguments about agriculture and water use — while true to a point — are deeply flawed. For starters, agribusinesses, especially in the dry Western San Joaquin Valley (roughly between Tracy and Bakersfield), have been making up for the water cutbacks from Northern California and the delta by pumping huge amounts of water out of the ground. In fact, in some areas, farmers have faced no real water shortage so far, because the state has no restrictions on groundwater use.

In addition, as the Express and other news outlets have reported over the past fifteen months, much of the water use in the Western San Joaquin Valley in recent years has not been for essential foods, such as fruits and vegetables, nor has it been used to grow crops for California and the rest of the nation, as Brown contends. Rather, agribusinesses have used the water to fuel the almond boom now sweeping the valley. Almonds and other nut crops, such as pistachios and walnuts, require copious amounts of water to grow. In addition, much of the highly lucrative nutcrop is shipped overseas — in the case of almonds, about 70 percent.

In short, many agribusinesses in the San Joaquin Valley have been profiting by essentially shipping California water overseas.

Moreover, the claim that San Joaquin Valley farmers are facing water cutbacks from Northern California and the delta is dubious. Over the past month, Big Ag and the Brown administration have contended that valley growers should not face mandatory rationing because they will receive only about 20 percent of their allotment this year from the State Water Project — which ships water via canals and aqueducts from Northern California reservoirs and the delta to the south.

But that argument fails to note that the 20 percent allotment figure is essentially meaningless. Why? California’s water is way oversubscribed. According to a 2014 UC Davis study, California has allocated water contracts for about five times more water than is actually available in a normal year. As such, San Joaquin Valley growers, even in wet years, don’t receive 100 percent of their allotments from the State Water Project because there simply is not enough water to go around. “They never get their full allotments,” said Tom Stokely, water policy analyst for the conservation group California Water Impact Network. Stokely added that even in the wettest years, San Joaquin Valley farmers only get about 50 percent of their allotments.

Furthermore, this year’s 20 percent figure excludes groundwater use. Since the drought began four years ago, San Joaquin Valley farmers have been pumping unprecedented amounts of water from the ground for their crops. As the Los Angeles Times (which has done some of the best reporting on water waste in California) reported last month, some areas of the valley have been sinking six to twelve inches a year, because of all the pumping. The land subsidence is causing roads and bridges to buckle, and even is impacting water canals.

But worse than that, agribusinesses are now in a mad dash to see who can drill the deepest holes to access the dwindling groundwater supplies, as the water table continues to plummet. Growers are now sucking out water that seeped into the ground 10,000 to 20,000 years ago — during The Pleistocene Epoch.

In other words, they’re using water that will take a very, very long time to replenish. “There are tons of young almonds and pistachios, and they have to pump,” USGS water hydrologist Michelle Sneed told the LA Times, referring to the increasing number of new nut orchards in the San Joaquin Valley.

But maybe most troubling, Sneed added, is that the extensive groundwater pumping is causing soil compaction in the valley that can permanently reduce the size of California’s aquifers — meaning the state’s underground water supply may never fully recover from what Big Ag is doing right now. That’s the height of unsustainability.

Last year, Brown received kudos for signing the state’s first groundwater pumping regulations. But the new rules, while welcome, are incredibly weak. They call for the creation of groundwater agencies to achieve sustainability — more than two decades from now.

We obviously don’t have that much time. California needs to restrict groundwater pumping immediately and slash Ag usage by 25 percent. Growers should not be exempt from the same rules that govern everyone else. That’s especially true when they’re planting water-intensive, nonessential crops in the desert-like conditions of the Western San Joaquin Valley.


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