Farmers use water to grow our food, a basic need. No water, no farming, no food. Farmers have been stewards of our natural resources for generations, and have provided jobs and commerce. Despite California’s extensive aqueduct system, the current drought has severely strained surface water supplies.
As a result, groundwater is being pumped out at record rates, harming the state’s aquifers and sometimes other landowners. One of the reasons this is happening is that California lacks consistent groundwater management.
A number of lobbyists in Sacramento representing some farm groups – though certainly not all farmers – claim that farmers aren’t ready for groundwater regulation. Yet, many farmers acknowledge the need for well-thought-out groundwater management, especially in this time of drought and decreasing groundwater levels.
Measurements taken by satellites show that since the 1990s, California’s Central Valley has lost about 41 million acre-feet – equivalent to 1.5 times the volume of Lake Mead, the nation’s largest man-made reservoir. In addition to the present severe drought, these losses can be tied to:
• Drilling and pumping in some unmanaged areas without regard for neighboring farms and rural residents, leaving some without water.
• Planting of permanent crops, including nut trees, in areas where water is already scarce. Such thirsty crops require water year after year and cannot be fallowed in dry times. Thus these landowners drill new wells to ensure their access to unregulated groundwater reserves.
• Pumping more than a reasonable share of groundwater to sell downstream at inflated prices, to the great detriment of neighboring landowners and farmers. In most cases, this is completely legal given the lack of groundwater regulation.
While farmers in some areas have been involved in successful local groundwater management efforts, in other areas, such as San Luis Obispo County, counties have had to step in to halt well drilling due to negative impacts on farmers and rural residents.
Local management is often hampered by a lack of information. Groundwater availability and use remain largely unknown – locally and statewide. No one is tracking how much groundwater is being used, by whom or for what. And, importantly, no one is figuring out whether new groundwater use will harm existing groundwater needs.
We can’t manage what we don’t measure. As drillers report working around the clock to drill more and deeper wells during this drought, the need for better measurement and management of groundwater use is clear.
That’s why many farmers support legislation to require local groundwater management planning. Without it, they are left in a race to the bottom.
Juliet Christian-Smith is a scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists. Moira Burke is a farmer in Solano County. Both are members of the California Roundtable on Water and Food Supply.