California farmers face ‘catastrophic’ water restrictions. Can they adapt to survive?
An article discussing the damaging effects that the new groundwater legislation will have on California farmers. Farmers must adapt to these new changes or risk losing their farms.
It was 2015 and, as far as John Konda knew, farming still had a viable future in the San Joaquin Valley. So he expanded.
The Tulare County grower planted 75 acres of pistachios, adding to a farm he’s owned since 2003. Two years later, in order to augment his water supply, he drilled two new groundwater wells.
Now he wonders whether the investments, totaling more than $1.5 million, will turn out to be a costly mistake.
Stoking his anxiety is California’s Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, or SGMA. Starting next January, the law will require farmers to gradually rein in the amount of groundwater they can pump from their wells. It could devastate the economy of the entire San Joaquin Valley.
In a region where agriculture is king — and the ability to extract the water beneath one’s soil has been practically a birthright — a difficult reckoning is coming. Farmers will have to start throttling back their pumps, dramatically altering how they cultivate one of the world’s most fertile valleys. Some land probably won’t survive as farms at all.
Although the law will take 20 years to fully take effect, the impact on the San Joaquin Valley will be considerable. Water is in chronically short supply around the Valley to begin with, and the region’s groundwater basins — over-pumped for decades, especially during the drought — are in worse shape than anywhere else in California.’
To bring the Valley’s aquifers into balance, the Public Policy Institute of California says anywhere between 535,000 and 750,000 acres of Valley farmland will have to be retired eventually.
That will mean a lot fewer pistachios, grapes, almonds and tomatoes — and tremendous upheaval in a region that already under-performs the rest of the state on a host of socioeconomic measures.
In Tulare County, where unemployment is already 9.2 percent, the anxiety is growing week by week. Some growers are already curtailing planting, and land prices are tumbling as farmers unload their properties.
“The stakes are dire,” said Bryce McAteer, who until recently ran the groundwater sustainability agency that will enforce pumping restrictions in the 160,000-acre Eastern Tule region of Tulare County. McAteer said as much as one-third of Eastern Tule’s land could go out of production eventually, and already the region’s farming industry is beginning to wither. “We’re hearing tales of folks having trouble getting their operating loans,” he said. “We’ve heard growers say they’ve not been planting wall to wall.”
The SGMA law (pronounced “sigma”) says groundwater basins must be brought into “sustainability” — defined as cutting consumption to the point that they’re no longer causing “chronic lowering of groundwater levels” or other “undesirable results.” To implement the law, dozens of regional groundwater agencies have been set up. The January launch has managers scrambling to figure out just how much less water their farmers will have in the future.
Eric Limas, who runs a groundwater agency in the Pixley area of Tulare County, says his water allotment will be downright frightening: Farmers on his turf will have to curtail their groundwater usage by 40 percent eventually.
“You’re talking devastation here, in the catastrophe spectrum,” Limas said.