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Change in California water will prevent catastrophe, build a more resilient Valley

Porterville farmer John Corkins checks on his grapefruit orchard, which is drip irrigated with about 60 percent coming from groundwater, on Tuesday, Sept. 17, 2019.
Porterville farmer John Corkins checks on his grapefruit orchard, which is drip irrigated with about 60 percent coming from groundwater, on Tuesday, Sept. 17, 2019. Fresno Bee file

Change is hard. It’s human nature to resist it.

So it’s not surprising that some Central Valley farmers and water managers are raising alarm bells about the most sweeping change to state water law in a century, saying in a recent Fresno Bee series that the consequences will be “excruciating” and “catastrophic.”

Bringing Valley water use into balance — the ultimate goal of the new law — will be hard. However, the pain can be reduced significantly, and the law can even bring benefits, if we strategically implement a variety of solutions such as water trading, technology, and incentives for farmers to use their land in new and beneficial ways.

The Sustainable Groundwater Management Act will require local agencies for the first time to manage and ultimately balance their groundwater demand and supply. It was passed five years ago during the last epic drought and after years of unsustainable groundwater pumping that was causing land to sink and undermining the reliability of the Central Valley’s water supplies.

The law gives farmers and local agencies 20 years to make this transition. But the clock is starting to tick because the deadline for the most at-risk groundwater basins to submit sustainability plans is Jan. 30.

It’s true that the Central Valley — the most productive agricultural region in our country — is at a crossroads. We don’t yet know exactly how severe the economic impacts of bringing the Valley’s groundwater basins into balance will be on the region, or if they would be even worse than if we didn’t make this transition to sustainability, but it’s inevitable that some farmland will have to be taken out of production.

On one path, the Valley could become a patchwork of dusty, weed-infested fields eroding public health and the productivity of remaining farms, with fewer jobs than we have today. On another path, the region can come together to strategically convert farmland to other uses that could lessen impacts to the health and well-being of the Valley.

Solar farms are one possibility, as noted by one Bee article in the series, but it’s just one of several pragmatic solutions that can help ensure a smoother transition to sustainable groundwater management. Other options include converting farmland to other uses that support wildlife habitat, outdoor recreation, new jobs, healthy air and soil, groundwater recharge, and flood control.

For example, some lands could be strategically converted into vibrant habitat corridors for wildlife, such as the San Joaquin kit fox and migratory waterfowl, which would also help improve air quality by reducing dust emissions from fallowed fields. As the Sacramento Bee noted, farm groups are starting to work with our organization, Environmental Defense Fund, and The Nature Conservancy to explore legal arrangements that would pay farmers to turn some of their land into wildlife habitat.

Water trading is another solution that can help reduce job and revenue losses. While some in the Valley fear that groundwater regulation will cause tens of thousands of workers to lose their jobs, a detailed analysis by the Public Policy Institute of California estimated annual job losses could be reduced to 13,000 if several strategies, including water trading, are implemented. That’s roughly 4% of today’s agricultural economy and less than 1% of the total regional economy, the PPIC notes — still significant, but less severe than if groups don’t take coordinated action.

EDF and the Rosedale-Rio Bravo Water Storage District in Bakersfield launched a pilot water trading project that we hope can be replicated in other areas of the San Joaquin Valley to foster more flexible water use and ultimately reduce the impacts of transition to groundwater balance, all while protecting rural communities and ecosystem health.

As local agencies figure out how to balance groundwater demand with finite supply, it’s important to note that without SGMA, we would eventually have to reduce groundwater use anyway, because overpumping and more severe droughts powered by climate change would ultimately deplete our groundwater basins beyond practical use.

Under SGMA, we have a framework, and in some cases funding, for local agencies to better understand their groundwater use and develop plans to balance their groundwater budgets in ways that work for their local situation. To further help, our organization and others are also recommending pilot programs to provide state funding for farmers to convert land to bring new benefits, such as groundwater recharge or wildlife habitat and thus support a smoother transition.

Fortunately, farmers and water managers have 20 years to manage this transition. A lot can change in 20 years. We’re already seeing new innovations and technologies emerge that will certainly help.

Let’s roll up our sleeves and work together to develop pragmatic solutions to prepare for this change and ultimately build a healthier future for the Central Valley and all of California.

Ann Hayden is senior director of Western water and resilient landscapes for the Environmental Defense Fund. Email: ahayden@edf.org.