Why. They always leave out the “why”. Read any news article regarding subsidence, and it will tell you farmers pumped groundwater, and the land sunk. That’s true, but that is only the end of the story. Why do farmers pump the water under their land (which California law clearly states belongs to them) in the first place? Unfortunately, you’ll rarely read the answer to this question in the press, but it is the most important part of the story.
Farmers pump groundwater because for more than 25 years, an innumerable myriad of Endangered Species Act-related laws, mandates, opinions, rulings and settlements have resulted in less and less surface water allocations for agriculture — even though all of these directives have failed to produce a rebound of endangered fish. When food producers receive the 0% and 5% water allocations like we saw in 2014, 2015, and 2016, they have no choice but to exercise their lawful property rights and to use water under their land.
Keep in mind, the construction costs of our two major water projects that are supposed to supply surface water, the Central Valley Project and the State Water Project, are still being paid off by farmers. Farmers also pay the costs to maintain and operate the projects from which they were promised water through contractual agreements with the government. Project water used for environmental programs is also paid for by farmers. Most pay regardless of whether or not surface water is delivered, and when it isn’t, the farmer pays yet again for expensive electricity to pump lesser quality water up from the earth. What choice do they have?
Early in the year crop planning begins, crop loans are borrowed from the bank, and ground is planted based on estimates of how much water a farmer thinks he’ll be able to secure after looking at many factors. Water allocation announcements by government agencies used to come early in the year to assist with planning. Lately though, the announcements haven’t come until spring or later, when it’s too risky to shotgun in a crop.
When allocations are not adequate for irrigation, family farmers are in danger of not being able to produce enough of a crop to fulfill contracts with food processors who have hired them to grow X amount of a particular product. An undersized harvest means the farmer comes up short on repaying bank loans. That grower must now turn to groundwater to save the farm. But where is the surface water they used to count on in return for their investment?
Environmental policy over the last two-and-a-half decades has prevented water from being stored, conveyed, and delivered, while simultaneously worsening now nearly extinct fish populations. Coupled with California’s lack of adequate above-ground water storage, this water-year alone, 84% of the freshwater flowing into the Delta has continued flowing unimpaired to the Pacific Ocean. This is an exponentially greater amount than what is needed to prevent saltwater intrusion into the Delta — a necessity all water users recognize as essential. Farmers cannot grow food in saltwater.
If just one-tenth of this freshwater had gone to farmers instead, they could have used their existing irrigation infrastructure to mimic Mother Nature’s rains, and dispersed water over tens of thousands of acres of farmland all summer long. Aquifers could have been recharged, subsidence could have been arrested, and degraded well-water quality could have been mitigated with freshwater dilution.
And guess what? Farmers could have grown a crop at the same time, boosting economic output, creating jobs, and bolstering public tax coffers.
Subsidence did not begin in 2014’s drought. It was an issue at least a century before. The only action that curtailed subsidence and recovered aquifers as much as 200 feet in some areas, was the onset of surface water deliveries from the State Water Project and the Central Valley Project. With the severe reduction of surface water, it is no surprise subsidence has returned.
We must give more water back to the earth and less to the sea. Land sinking is the result of bad policy being repeated, and hoping for a different outcome. Farmers are not to blame for subsidence, but if we give their water back, it can be alleviated.