In our economy, we commoditize things. We buy and sell potato chips. We buy and sell computers, coffee, cars and spring rolls. On the world wide web, you can even buy cans of “unicorn meat.” Some items, however, should not be left to the market. They are too sensitive or too important to be commoditized. One of those precious items is our groundwater.
Yet, this is what several new local water groups, called groundwater sustainability agencies, are considering doing with this resource: allowing those with money to buy the ability to pump more groundwater from others. For small rural communities next to big farms that have lots of buying power, this “pay to pump more” scheme could mean those communities will suffer as their wells go dry.
Groundwater is a vital resource, not only for irrigating crops, but also because it is what the overwhelming majority of Central Valley residents depend on for our tap water, which we use to drink, cook, bathe, do laundry, and flush our toilets.
Without markets, everyone besides small domestic water users would have a limit of groundwater they could use each year. But with a groundwater market — also referred to as groundwater “trading, “water sharing,” “water credit trading,” or groundwater or water “exchanges” — farmers could buy water from another farmer, who would sell their water and fallow their land. That way, both can still make money: one from having enough water to grow crops, and the other from selling water.
But groundwater markets are a huge risk to communities on private wells and small community water systems, which are sprinkled throughout the Valley and provide much of the labor force for our agribusinesses. If large farms are allowed to purchase as much water as they want from other farmers, they will lower the water table and again, communities will suffer. We have already seen this happen in cases like Tombstone Territory near Sanger, where half of the community’s wells went dry shortly after neighboring farmers installed new, deeper wells during the drought. Some families had to go months without water flowing from their taps, and had to get water from a neighbor’s hose or use the showers at friends’ houses in the nearby city of Sanger.
Australia has a groundwater market, and its results have not been acceptable. In Australia’s case, the groundwater market caused drastic drops in groundwater levels in concentrated areas. As reported by News Deeply, “just as air pollution markets can create pollution “hotspots,” groundwater markets can concentrate pumping, causing harm to communities and ecosystems that depend on groundwater.” If this happens in the San Joaquin Valley, hundreds, if not thousands, of families will find themselves without running tap water — no ability to drink water, bathe, brush their teeth, or flush the toilet without spending more than $20,000 to drill a new well or buying pallets of bottled water every week. Rural, low-income communities in the San Joaquin Valley are already the most at risk for problems with dry wells and contaminated tap water; wide swaths of these communities’ wells went dry during the last drought, and many currently have contaminated drinking water.
The California Legislature has recognized the human right to safe, reliable and affordable drinking water. We cannot violate this essential human right in the name of economic profit. We want our region’s industries to continue providing jobs, services, products and money for local infrastructure and investment, but not at the expense of families’ drinking water. We must use groundwater in a way that is fair to everyone’s needs, especially those whose water needs have been neglected for so long.
My organization, Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability, is hosting an event about groundwater markets on July 2 alongside partner organizations Self-Help Enterprises, the Community Water Center and the Union of Concerned Scientists. The event will be at 5:30 p.m. at Cafe 210 in Visalia. We invite everyone to attend this event to learn more about groundwater markets and ensure that the water needs of our most vulnerable communities are protected.