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.
It could get worse. The Public Policy Institute’s main water expert, Ellen Hanak, said climate change could lead to even more land retirement.
Here’s why: Historically, the Sierra Nevada snowpack acts as a second set of reservoirs. When it melts, the runoff replenishes the reservoirs, providing enough water for the dry months. But as winters get warmer, more of the precipitation will fall as rain instead of snow. The runoff will come too quickly for the reservoirs, and much of the water will wind up in the ocean. That will leave less water for agriculture in the decades to come.
In Terra Bella, Konda is simply wondering how he can get through the next few years.
Konda, who relies entirely on groundwater to supply his 460 acres of pistachio and citrus trees, fears he could be forced to retrench. In a few years he might have to yank some of trees out of the ground — the less valuable navel oranges would probably go first — to save enough water to keep the remaining orchards going.
Konda was vaguely aware of the groundwater law before he planted his pistachios — it was enacted in 2014 — but says he didn’t grasp the implications of the law until later.
“It’s been a long learning curve,” he said.
Farmland is sinking
Agriculture accounts for 20 percent of the Valley’s entire economic output and 18 percent of its jobs, according to the Public Policy Institute. At the same time, agriculture’s water supply in the Valley has long been tenuous, even in rainy years.
It’s telling that when former Gov. Jerry Brown officially declared the end of the drought in 2017, he kept emergency conditions in place in three Valley counties — Fresno, Tulare and Kings — as well as Tuolumne. That’s still in effect, and those counties remain eligible for drought-related state assistance.
The arrival of the state’s groundwater law has reignited a debate over state water policies and who’s to blame for the desperate condition of the Valley’s aquifers.
During the drought, farmers were criticized for pumping so much groundwater that portions of the Valley floor literally sank. That phenomenon, known as subsidence, can compact the layers of soil and make it impossible for aquifers to fully “recharge” in wet years, scientists say.
Farmers also took heat for planting crops such as almonds, whose footprint more than doubled over the past 20 years to more than 900,000 acres. The problem: Almond trees are comparatively thirsty and, unlike row crops such as tomatoes, can’t be fallowed during dry years. They have to be watered, no matter what.
BEHIND OUR REPORTING
Why we did this story
What happens when one of the poorest regions in the state is hit with a law that could make it even poorer? We’re about to find out, thanks to the collision between the San Joaquin Valley and California’s Sustainable Groundwater Management Act. It will force farmers to start throttling back the amount of water they pull from the ground.
Although the law has been on the books since 2014, its impact is about to be felt in earnest in January. That’s when the Valley — home to 4 million Californians, rich in agriculture but poor in practically everything else — will begin a painful and perhaps crippling transformation. It’s a story that has to be told.
Click on the arrow in the upper right to read more.
How did we report this story?
This story began last spring, when Sacramento Bee reporter Dale Kasler read a Public Policy Institute of California report on the future of the San Joaquin Valley and California’s groundwater law.
The numbers were eye-popping: The best-case scenario predicted the loss of 535,000 acres of Valley farmland. Kasler began meeting with water policy experts, irrigation district executives and farmers. He met in Sacramento and Fresno with Valley leaders lobbying the Capitol for help.
As he traveled across the Valley, he found no shortage of anxiety: A dairyman in Pixley bemoaned the impact on food supplies; a fruit picker and new mom from Strathmore spoke in Spanish about job insecurity. Business owners in Farmersville, a town ringed by orchards, gestured to their community’s woebegone commercial district and wondered if things will get worse.
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For their part, farmers said planting almond trees was a rational economic decision; it made perfect sense to devote a scarce resource to a high-value commodity. And they refused to apologize for pumping groundwater. Instead, they blame the state for environmental restrictions that have curtailed their access to “surface” water from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, leaving them no choice but to use groundwater to keep their farms alive.
They don’t dispute the idea that groundwater basins must become sustainable. But they’re furious that their livelihoods are being threatened, along with the heart of the state’s $50 billion-a-year farm output.
“The areas that are being impacted the most are the counties that the most prolific food growers in the United States,” said Joey Airoso, a dairy farmer in Pixley. “Who gets to feed 40 million people? Do they have a plan for that?”
Mary-Ann Warmerdam, a lobbyist with Rural County Representatives of California, said most members of the Legislature haven’t grasped the enormity of the potential economic harm that could befall the region.
“I don’t sense that members, outside of that small circle of San Joaquin Valley representatives, are really focusing on it,” she said.
Top state officials insist they’re on top of the issue. Wade Crowfoot, secretary of the state Natural Resources Agency, said Gov. Gavin Newsom’s administration is formulating plans for economic assistance to help the Valley cope with a transition that promises to be difficult.
“I’m not suggesting there are any silver bullet solutions here,” Crowfoot said. “Everybody acknowledges two things about SGMA: One, it’s absolutely necessary. And two, it’s going to have substantial economic impacts.”
Pressure on a weak economy
California’s groundwater law won’t affect all parts of the Valley equally. A sad truth is that it will hit hardest in places that are most reliant on groundwater and most fragile economically.
“The further south you go into the Valley, the higher degree of agriculture dependence you have. And you also hit the more severely over-drafted basins as well,” said economist Jeff Michael of the University of the Pacific.
John Corkins lives and works in one of those ground-zero areas — near Porterville in southern Tulare County, where the aquifers are in terrible shape and the fear factor is growing.
“We’re scared to death down here,” Corkins said, pulling out of his desk drawer an economic report predicting billions of dollars in crop losses.
Corkins runs an ag-consulting firm called Research for Hire. He also grows grapefruit and olives on 300 acres in Tulare and Kern counties. Some of the land gets water via canals from the area irrigation district; about 40 percent is dependent on groundwater, and Corkins believes the state law will bring economic misery to an area where the unemployment rate sits at 10 percent.
In a few years, “we’re going to be starting to ratchet things down,” he said as he inspected a groundwater well and his grapefruit trees — a sweet variety called Melogold. “There will probably be fewer of us sitting around the coffee shops in 2040.
“The number of jobs that are going to be lost in this area is going to be dramatic. People that don’t have a second skill are going to be losing their jobs.”
Consuelo Andrade, 41, is not an expert in California’s arcane groundwater law — but she understands that her livelihood would be threatened if some of the farmland in Tulare County starts going idle.
“Where are we going to get money? How are we going to survive?” she said through a translator.
Life is hard enough as it is. Andrade, who came to the United States nine years ago, picks oranges, lemons, grapes and olives from November to April. She gets paid by the number of bins she fills; it works out to $40 to $60 a day, but she’s on food stamps now because it’s off season and she’s been caring for her 13-month-old daughter Guadalupe Ruby.
Her husband, Manuel Cisneros, 55, also works in the fields but he’s been reduced to part-time labor because of diabetes and other health problems. They live in a $200-a-month rental in Strathmore.
What if the farms dry up and their incomes vanish? Unable to speak English, they doubt they’d be able to find much work in Tulare County. One possibility is moving to Oregon, where they’ve picked cherries before and there don’t seem to be any water shortages.
“There’s going to be an epidemic of people moving,” Andrade said.
Farmland won’t go out of production overnight. Outside experts say Valley farmers will have time to find alternative water supplies and make SGMA more palatable.
“You’re not tearing out all your trees in 2020,” Hanak said. “They have this 20-year horizon.”
Some farm leaders are cobbling together groundwater trading markets that would allow growers to buy and sell pumping rights. No new water would be created, but a market would likely move more water to high-value crops like almonds, helping prop up overall farm income even as land is idled.
“You’re farming almonds and I’m farming carrots. Your ability and willingness to pay for water is greater than mine. That’s the economics,” said Eric Averett, general manager of the Rosedale Rio Bravo Water Storage District in Kern County, which is building a web-based trading system.
There could be drawbacks. Shifting more water to high-income commodities could “harden” water demand because trees must be watered every year.
And some worry about who wins and loses in any market-oriented scheme. The water could end up “flowing to the guys with the deepest pocketbooks,” said Dan Vink, executive director of the South Valley Water Association, which represents several water districts in Tulare and Kern counties. “When you start matching up the corporate farms with the mom and pops, that’s not a fair fight.”
Other districts are studying construction projects that could allow them to import more water.
Westlands Water District is looking at spending millions of dollars on pipes and ditches to capture more flood flows off the Kings River. It also might build “recharge basins” to store supplies in new shallow reservoirs. The projects could cost millions and are in their early planning stages, but Westlands is adamant about trying to navigate the groundwater law without retiring any land.
It’s an attitude rooted in a painful history. In the early 1980s, hundreds of waterfowl turned up dead and deformed at the nearby Kesterson wildlife refuge, one of the most notorious environmental disasters in California history. The birds were poisoned by irrigation water runoff that was tainted with salt and selenium, the result of improper soil drainage. The ensuing litigation spawned a settlement in the early 2000s that resulted in 85,000 acres of contaminated Westlands land taken out of commission.
No more of that, Westlands says. “I’m optimistic that we wouldn’t face any additional land fallowing in Westlands,” said Jose Gutierrez, chief operating officer. “Maybe we’ve already experienced the amount of fallowing we need to do.”
In Kerman, a farming region of Fresno County between I-5 and Highway 99, the McMullin area groundwater agency is angling to buy water from neighboring irrigation districts.
Because the McMullin area has no irrigation canals, it would have to invest heavily in infrastructure to import the water. But the alternative could be much worse. Without new water, the 250 farmers covered by the McMullin agency will have to reduce their groundwater use by one third over the next 20 years, raising the prospect of substantial land retirement.
“There’s water, and probably enough water to satisfy a large part of the need,” said general manager Matt Hurley. “It’s not sloshing, but there is water available.”
Will Newsom help farmers?
A few miles west of John Konda’s farm in Terra Bella lies the Friant-Kern Canal, one of the most important arteries in California’s water-delivery network. In recent years it’s become a vivid symbol of the Valley’s groundwater woes.
Years of over-pumping has caused portions of the Valley to sink. Some of the worst damage has occurred at a spot near Terra Bella. The ground has fallen so far that the Friant-Kern has sunk with it, creating a choke point. The problem feeds on itself: The canal has lost so much of its capacity to deliver water south that farmers say they’re under even more pressure to tap their groundwater.
Valley leaders have asked the state for help with the canal, so far without success. Last fall California voters defeated Proposition 3, which would have raised $350 million to fix the canal as well as funding for other water projects. This year farm groups rallied behind SB 559, which would have allocated $400 million for the Friant-Kern’s repairs. But the legislation was converted into a “two-year bill” at the end of August, which means lawmakers won’t take any action until next year.
Undaunted, Valley leaders are still pressing Sacramento for assistance with navigating SGMA. If the state would help bring more water to the Valley, they argue, the region could curtail its groundwater consumption without unraveling its economy.
“The Valley deserves the opportunity to try to control, help steer its destiny and minimize the impacts that might occur,” said Austin Ewell III, a Fresno attorney and land-use consultant. Ewell is chairing an effort called the Water Blueprint for the San Joaquin Valley, a suite of proposals aimed at augmenting the Valley’s water supplies.
Some of the ideas are certain to arouse controversy.
Among other things, Ewell — who served for a time as deputy Interior secretary for water and science in President Donald Trump’s administration — is trying to enlist state support for Trump’s plan to move more river water to Valley farmers via the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, the hub of the state’s elaborate water delivery network.
More water from the Delta could save as many as 200,000 acres of Valley land, by one estimate. But the state has already signaled its opposition to the Trump plan. Environmentalists say shipping more water to farmers would harm salmon and other endangered species that ply the fragile Delta.
On the other hand, Newsom has said he wants to find common ground between agriculture and environmentalists on water issues. Farmers cheered when he announced he would veto SB 1, a bill that would have essentially blocked the impact of every environmental rule proposed by Trump since he took office. Crowfoot said the governor is eager to listen to what Ewell’s Blueprint consortium has to say about finding new water for agriculture.
“It advances the discussion,” said Newsom’s natural resources secretary.
Many farmers, however, remain skeptical that Sacramento will lift a finger to help them. Madera farmer Denis Prosperi is so fed up with Sacramento, he’s partially bailed out of the state.
Two years ago, prompted in part by the groundwater law, Prosperi sold 400 acres of almond trees. He put the cash into commercial real estate — in Idaho.
“I don’t like the politics of California,” said Prosperi, who still owns 330 acres of vineyards in the Madera area. “They’re going to legislate a lot of crops out of business.”
Waking up on groundwater
It’s not as if farmers were unaware of the significance of groundwater. It accounts for 38 percent of the state’s total supply in a normal year, close to 50 percent or more in a dry year.
Nor was it any secret that Californians have been using too much of it. The Public Policy Institute says the Valley has been “overdrafting” its aquifers to the tune of 1.8 million acre-feet a year — enough to fill Millerton Lake, the giant Central Valley Project reservoir northeast of Fresno, more than three times over. In the drought, the overdraft reached 8 million acre-feet a year, according to the Public Policy Institute. An acre-foot is 326,000 gallons.
Still, even when Brown signed the sustainable groundwater bill into law in 2014, there was a sense of disbelief around the Valley.
“I said, ‘They can’t enforce this thing,’” said Corkins, the Porterville grapefruit grower.
Now he knows better. He sits on the board of a local groundwater agency and is watching water allocation plans come into focus. In his area, farmers will eventually have to cut their groundwater use by as much as 90,000 acre-feet, or one third.
“It’s not going to go away,” Corkins said. “You can’t put your head in the sand.”
Corkins and his neighbors are in a particularly difficult spot. Much of their land is “white area,” meaning it isn’t served by an irrigation district and depends solely on groundwater.
Now some of that land is becoming expendable. Michael Ming, a land broker and consultant in Bakersfield, said farmers are selling out and “white area” land that sold for $15,000 an acre just four years ago has dropped to $7,500.
“The values are coming down dramatically,” said Ming, owner of Alliance Ag Services. “It’s a matter of coming to the realization that SGMA is real and SGMA is going to affect everybody.”
For John Konda, the alarm bells started ringing two years ago. He’d already spent a fortune drilling new wells and planting more pistachios and was negotiating to buy 200 acres of land from a neighbor. The cost: $4 million.
“Then,” Konda said, “I found out why they were selling it.”
The reason was the groundwater law. Konda walked away from the land purchase and began brushing up on SGMA. He joined the board of his local groundwater agency as the representative of “white area” growers like himself. Then he crunched the water numbers and realized he might have to abandon some of his 460 acres some day.
Unless he can find replacement supplies.
Konda and several of his neighbors are trying to do something audacious: They’re reviving the Hope Water District, an irrigation agency that went dormant decades ago, in hopes of turning it into a legal structure for bringing more water to the Terra Bella area.
How that would work, Konda isn’t actually sure. Water would have to be purchased from somewhere and canals would have to be constructed. He’s hoping to craft a solution that would somehow stave off the day when “the water goes down to the point that it doesn’t make sense to keep farming,” he said.
He thinks that day is still several years off. But in the meantime, he’s willing to explore some alternatives.
Just south of his property, he said a neighboring farmer has just made a deal to build a solar energy farm on 320 acres. The development has given him ideas about his own future.
“If we were to take some property out, and put it into solar, sure, why not? I’m open. Some kind of income is better than no kind of income.”