California’s Central Valley: Ground Zero in Water War

An almond orchard in full bloom in California’s Central Valley.

FRESNO, Calif. (CN) – Stretching hundreds of miles from the mountains bordering Los Angeles north toward the state capital, the San Joaquin Valley doesn’t resemble landscapes typically associated with California. Devoid of the skyscrapers, beaches and bridges that make California famous, the sprawling valley is instead filled with thousands of farms and oil fields that quietly help drive the state’s $2.7 trillion economy.

Known as the “food basket of the world,” for over a century the valley and its rich soil have spoiled Americans with a wide variety of nuts, produce, wine grapes, dairy and even cotton.

The average motorist traveling on the valley’s north-south thoroughfares – Interstate 5 and State Route 99 – can scarcely tell they are inside the most altered rural landscape in California. But there is no mistaking the fact that humans have transformed the valley conservationist John Muir described as California’s “grandest and most telling” landscape when he walked it in 1868.

Since Muir’s journey, Californians have not only drained Tulare Lake – once the largest freshwater lake west of the Mississippi – but built hundreds of miles of canals and aqueducts that irrigate over 5 million acres of farmland and deliver water to 4 million residents in eight valley counties.

Now stripped of its once vast wetlands and nearly sucked dry from the overpumping of groundwater during the West’s increasingly common droughts, the fertile valley is in need of a reboot: Its aquifers have shrunk and the remaining water is often contaminated with nitrate and salts.

Citing a new water law that will have major effects on water suppliers and farmers, experts are calling for an “all hands on deck” approach to fixing the valley’s water woes.

“This is a region that faces really unprecedented challenges and inevitable change,” said Ellen Hanak, director of water policy at the Public Policy Institute of California, at an event Friday at California State University, Fresno. “A lot is at stake for the economy, public health, the health of society and the environment.”

Preserving aquifers

Since 2016, Hanak and her team of researchers have been brainstorming ways to help water agencies and farmers comply with the state’s new Sustainable Groundwater Management Act.

The landmark act consists of three water bills signed by former Gov. Jerry Brown during California’s most recent drought. The package introduced regulations on groundwater use for the first time in state history, with the end goal of replenishing and bringing underground basins to sustainable levels by the year 2040. 

Water agencies that tap into what regulators consider overused basins, many of which are in the valley, have been developing sustainability plans over the last few years. The state wants water agencies to speed up the recharging process for aquifers, improve water quality and stop land subsidence.

Valley farmers were forced to rely heavily on groundwater during the unforgiving drought, after state and federal surface water supplies were cut off. The accelerated pumping from 2012 through 2016 caused irrigation and drinking water wells to go dry and ultimately caused land in the valley to sink. Sections of the 444-mile-long California Aqueduct dropped more than two feet, threatening infrastructure that provides water to most of the state’s 39 million residents.

Alvar Escriva-Bou a research fellow at the PPIC’s Water Policy Center who worked on the report for two years, said the Central Valley’s groundwater overdraft is beyond serious.

“We estimate the amount of this deficit is almost 2 million acre-feet per year,” he said. “Almost 90 percent of the water is used by farms.

Hanak and the PPIC researchers believe there is no silver bullet available for valley water suppliers to comply with the groundwater regulations. According to the PPIC, farmers may have to fallow at least 500,000 acres of farmland and switch to crops that require less water, while suppliers will have to capture more runoff from storms and decrease reliance on expensive water imported from Northern California.

Some farmers, like Maricopa Orchards CEO Jon Reiter, have already begun fallowing some of their land. Reiter, who grows almonds and pistachios, said he only plants half the average number of trees in critically overdrawn areas of his farm.

“While we are focused on permanent crops, we take great efforts to not overplant,” Reiter said. “When we decide as to what we’re going to plant, every tree that goes into the ground we’re looking at where that water is going to come from not next year or the year after, but 10 years down the line when the tree is fully matured. Our strategy is we’re going to have open land in our portfolio. We use the water associated with that open land to support the planted acreage.”

He said fallowed ground is put to other uses with economic benefits, like leasing the land to solar companies.

The PPIC report said that kind of creativity is crucial in the fight to conserve valley water.

“With the largest groundwater deficit in the state, the valley is ground zero for implementing this law,” the PPIC warns in its latest report. “Valley farmers and residents have a history of creatively adapting to difficult and changing conditions. Although major challenges lie ahead, constructive solutions are in reach.”

The authors presented their report “Water and the Future of the San Joaquin Valley” to a room full of valley farmers and water experts gathered at the Fresno State event on Friday. Experts on three separate panels told the crowd that farmers, environmentalists and suppliers will have to team up to tackle the new groundwater regulations. 

“How do you eat a whale? One bite at a time,” said Ric Ortega, general manager of Grasslands Water District in Merced County. “You try things and you engage in partnerships.”

Dirty water

While the valley only makes up 10 percent of the state’s total population, it’s home to more than half of the public drinking water systems that are out of compliance with state law. Over 100 small rural and disadvantaged communities rely on tap water contaminated with nitrates, and over 1 million Californians don’t have access to safe water.

One of the main contributors to nitrate contamination is the dairy industry, which fertilizes crops with nutrient-rich water from manure lagoons. Over time, excess nitrates from the water leach into the surrounding water table and often into water wells used for drinking.

Anja Raudabaugh, CEO of Western United Dairymen, says the industry is aware of the problem and is currently testing out new technologies. She expects the industry to make major strides in cutting out nitrate use over the next 5 to 10 years.

“It’s always hard having a flashlight shone directly over you,” said Raudabaugh.

Her group and others are pushing state lawmakers to pass a new tax that would go toward cleaning up wells contaminated with nitrates. The idea has failed in the past but under the latest iteration, residential water customers would pay an extra 95 cents per month along with fees assessed on dairies and fertilizer mills.

Supporters, like Veronica Garibay of the Leadership Council for Justice and Accountability, believe the so-called “water tax” will create long-term funding for clean drinking water programs. She says the 1 million Californians without clean water currently face a triple penalty: They are paying for dirty tap water, bottled water and for medical bills caused by using contaminated water.

At his first state budget press conference, Gov. Gavin Newsom called it a “disgrace” that some Central Valley residents don’t have access to clean water and announced support for a similar affordable drinking water improvement fund. Garibay agrees.

“This shouldn’t be a political issue; it’s time to get it done. We shouldn’t keep looking the other way and allowing this to continue in 2019,” said Garibay of the legislation.

The PPIC report and many of the participants at the Fresno event acknowledged the valley can’t afford to wait around for lawmakers to fix the valley’s water crisis.

“Although state and federal partners can help, the valley’s future is in the hands of its residents. A valley-wide conversation on the changes that lie ahead can help determine how to tackle the challenges outlined here and take the next steps for creating a better future. The stakes are high. So are the costs of inaction,” the 88-page report concludes. 

Maria Dinzeo contributed to this report.

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