From the East Bay, experiencing its driest year ever, to the state’s agricultural heartland, the San Joaquin Valley, another season of drought has returned to California.
Californians and residents of other western states have endured years and even generations of drought conditions, and water has always been a problem, especially for farmers. In the past, when drought dried up wells, it was nothing to just drill another, even deeper well.
Farmers also resorted to purchasing extra water, or occasionally managed to persuade officials to divert water that otherwise would maintain wildlife habitats. But it was the drilling of wells to tap the underground aquifers that – in part – led to the irreversible dilemma facing farmers in the valley today.
This “mining of the groundwater” for agriculture has enabled the San Joaquin Valley of California to become one of the world’s most productive agricultural regions, while simultaneously contributing to one of the single largest alterations of the land surface attributed to humankind.
Ground subsidence, the sinking of the ground caused by the excessive removal of water from underground aquifers, has taken a heavy toll. Since 1970, according to the US Geological Survey, subsidence in excess of 1 foot had affected more than 5,200 square miles of agricultural land—one-half the entire San Joaquin Valley.
In 2014, the state Legislature and former Governor Jerry Brown enacted an historic groundwater regulation law aimed at preventing any recurrences of land subsidence. California’s landmark Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA) requires water users to bring their groundwater basins into long-term balance over the next two decades.
Under the law, all groundwater taken from wells has to match the amount of water returned to aquifers by 2040. Agricultural experts say this will mean taking about 1 million acres of farmland out of production statewide. John Guthrie, president of the Tulare County Farm Bureau says, “Things were tough enough without having to deal with regulations that are becoming more onerous by the day.”
During Donald Trump’s presidency, the farmers in the San Joaquin Valley had an ally in Trump because he pushed federal officials to maximize agricultural diversions from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and reduce flows for fish and other wildlife, reports the Sacramento Bee.
But under President Joe Biden – diverting water on a whim and at the expense of other needs won’t happen so easily. Farmers want the governor to declare a drought emergency in the valley, but Governor Gavin Newsome is not in the best position politically to declare a statewide drought emergency, even though he did declare an emergency in Mendocino and Sonoma counties last week.
Newsome is in a no-win situation – facing a recall election later this year. It has become a choice of being “damned by environmentalists if he helps farmers by hurting the Delta and damned by farmers if he doesn’t.”
Much of California’s water supply comes from the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, however, snowpack readings traditionally done in the first week of April show California is down to about 50% of the average for yearly precipitation. This situation means that water conservation is critical.
As for water conservation officials agree that we are using much less water now than we were before previous droughts and firefighters and homeowners nowadays, much better prepared for wildfires.