This summer, as temperatures soared and groundwater depletion created more San Joaquin Valley sinkholes, 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 Sacramento Bee’s Ryan Sabalow, Dale Kasler and Phillip Reese reported this week, San Joaquin Valley farmers are digging wells in record numbers, some 2,500 last year, five times the average for the past 30 years. It’s literally a race to the bottom.
In places like Tulare, Fresno and Merced counties, where row crops have increasingly given way to more profitable – and more permanent – water users like almonds, the wells are going in faster and deeper than ever, leaving aquifers so depleted that drinking water in nearby towns is impacted.
What’s needed are tough, meaningful pumping restrictions, now, not years down the line when the groundwater law gets around to it.
“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, unsustainable – and alarming. No one can be given a pass as drought and climate change constrict California’s water supplies.
Homeowners are making do with browner lawns and shorter showers, and being fined for over-usage. 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, new almond groves pop up daily in parts of California where they don’t belong.
What’s needed are tough, meaningful pumping restrictions now – not years down the line when the groundwater law gets around to it. State lawmakers need to summon the backbone to revisit Wolk’s proposal, and stop this agricultural water grab.