Stop the groundwater grab

An East Porterville resident hung this sign along a street to protest a decision to get water from the city of Porterville.
An East Porterville resident hung this sign along a street to protest a decision to get water from the city of Porterville. hamezcua@sacbee.com

This summer, as temperatures soared and depleted groundwater turned the San Joaquin Valley into a collection of sinkholes, state Sen. Lois Wolk, D-Davis, put forth legislation to fast-track conservation of underground water supplies.

The proposal was modest: Delay drilling in overdrafted basins until the state’s new groundwater law takes hold in earnest. The bill squeaked through the Senate. Then the agricultural lobbies and the California Chamber of Commerce put it out of its misery.

“Drill, baby, drill” has since been the unofficial motto of California’s ag counties, in a trend that makes Wolk’s worries look quaint now. As The Bee’s Ryan Sabalow, Dale Kasler and Phillip Reese reported this week, San Joaquin Valley farmers are drilling wells in record numbers, some 2,500 last year, five times the average for the past 30 years.

In counties such as Tulare, Fresno and Merced, where row crops have increasingly given way to more profitable – and more permanent – water users such as almond orchards, the wells are going in faster and deeper than ever, leaving aquifers so depleted that drinking water in some towns is affected.

“It’s a business,” an unrepentant Firebaugh wine grape grower told the reporters. “I’ll make no apologies for trying to stay in business and being successful.”

His farm, he said, had been relying almost exclusively on well water for the past three years.

This attitude is understandable, but also unsustainable and alarming. No one can be given a pass as drought and climate change constrict California’s water supplies.

This month, state water officials made it clear that they will let more water flow through the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and out to sea in an attempt to revive drought-devastated salmon and smelt populations, and the fishing industry that depends on them.

Farmers must conserve, too. Imagine the irony in places like Woodville, in Tulare County, where for nearly a month recently, farm-depleted water tables so contaminated municipal wells that children couldn’t drink from the fountains at school.

Relying on altruism isn’t going to cut it. Farmers have already lost too much to drought to voluntarily sacrifice further. Common sense isn’t the answer, either. As it is, orchards are being planted, in the expectation that water will be available.

What’s needed are tough, meaningful pumping restrictions, now, not years down the line. State lawmakers need to summon the backbone to revisit Wolk’s proposal and stop this agricultural water grab.