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Wednesday, December 6, 2023
Courthouse News Service
Wednesday, December 6, 2023 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

San Joaquin Valley residents, growers vying for water in fourth year of drought

Residents and growers in the driest land in California's Central Valley are struggling to decide who gets priority water first.

TOOLEVILLE, Calif. (CN) — Noemi Barrera has spent four months without running water for herself and her four children, and is among many people in California living without it as wells across the state run dry. 

Like most in the 184-person agricultural community of Tooleville, nestled by the Tulare County foothills, Barrera can hear the county’s water truck arriving down the street to bring five-gallon jug rations every other week. She can see the newly snow-capped Sierra Nevada mountains to the east, a sign of hope for a winter that could be as dry as the last. 

Tooleville sits on a well that is now nearly unusable due to contamination from groundwater overdrilling. The state stepped in last year after the neighboring town Exeter refused to connect municipal water to the community’s residents. 

Barrera’s family uses what tap water is left for showers, and relies on the county’s water, usually gone within one week, for cooking and laundry. To bathe her three-month-old Ruby, Barrera boils the county ration water to protect her daughter from the harsh chemicals. She buys bottled water from Costco every week to supplement what water rations cannot cover. 

“Sometimes our toilet doesn’t even flush because there’s hardly any water in the toilet,” Barrera said. “Sometimes there’s no water at all, and my son comes back and he can’t shower.” 

Barrera grew up in the citrus-covered community but never faced this lack of running water until she brought Ruby home from the hospital and could not take a shower. And she is aware that many communities across the state’s vital Central Valley are staring down the same daily life, as their basins are depleted by unprecedented drought and ongoing groundwater pumping.

The state faces a likely parched winter, and a fourth year of drought. Last summer Governor Gavin Newsom released the “Water Supply Strategyto increase storage space for millions of acres of water, recycle wastewater and increase water use efficiency, stormwater capture and ocean water desalination. Since then, experts have sounded the alarm about the historic drought worsening with about 69% of 3,600 monitored wells below normal levels, of which nearly 1,000 are at an all-time low. 

Many wells vulnerable to going dry rest in the southern San Joaquin Valley, where city officials debate solutions and negotiate with irrigation districts to prepare for running out of their federal water allocation.

Coalinga’s city manager Marissa Trejo said Oct. 28 that a deal with Patterson Irrigation District for $1.1 million would extend the city’s allocation to last through February next year. The Department of Water Resources announced Nov. 2 that $1.2 million was awarded to that city for an emergency water transfer through the winter months. In Visalia, city council candidates have promised new approaches to the looming water shortage, like improving sustainability of local water infrastructure.

But Camille Pannu, a Columbia Law School clinical professor of law, said the state will be hard-pressed to provide aid next year to meet coming challenges. Many communities will go “completely dry” without access to irrigation district water that is expensive to treat, and will rely on state bottled water programs as in the last drought. 

Pannu said there are few counties prepared with disaster resilience funding plans. And Newsom’s office has focused on residential water conservation, rather than agricultural cuts. 

“Most policy changes are imposed on city and urban drinking water users, who are a very small share of people who use water in general,” she said. 

“The reality is that in some localities, it doesn't make sense for there to be pure local control over their water, because when you have built-in inequality of the water structure, you're never going to have an equitable power structure. We’re unlikely to see enforcement in time and it will be too late, but we’ll have another round of human rights disasters the way we did in the last drought. And it'll be really expensive.” 

Citrus growing is big business in Tulare County, Calif. (Natalie Hanson / Courthouse News)

Tricia Stever Blattler of Tulare County Farm Bureau said some farmers are reducing crop acreage and starting to receive state aid. With less surface water available, growers are incentivized to plant crops that generate more revenue while using less land and water, but could face fallowing crop land in the future. 

Blattler said instead of increasing costs to pump groundwater and charging penalties for people pumping more than they are allocated, local policymakers should advocate for bringing growers surface water.

“As long as the state continues to restrict water from flowing from North to South, and promotes environmental priorities in the Delta, the south valley will be shorted water, and it will continue to impact the price consumers pay for produce and other farm products,” she said.

Grower Eric Bream, who serves on a groundwater sustainability agency or GSA in Madera County, said he won’t be impacted by lower water allowances this year but expects to lose 30% in crop capacity within the next five years. 

Citrus orchards line the south Tulare County in California. (Natalie Hanson / Courthouse News)

While he said “I am not an advocate for government intervention in anything,” he thinks the state could help clear dying trees and renovate land that is not being watered. 

Craig Hornung, based in Woodlake across the road from Tooleville, doesn’t have any plans to modify his crops this year, beyond pruning his citrus tree canopies as water allocations decrease.

“I don’t think the community as a whole has a clue for what we’re in for, from a water standpoint,” he said. “They’ve never been in a position where it hasn’t come out of the tap.” However, he admitted he has not spoken to residents who cannot use tap water, such as across the road in Tooleville.

Lemon Cove grower Blake Mauritson said he thinks farmers have to manage their water better, but he expects to max out his groundwater pumping allotments in the coming year as water costs rise and commodity prices falter. 

“We know that at the end of the day, communities are going to get access to water first, and I believe they deserve that,” he said. “But surface water should be managed better for allocations, so they will pump less. I think for the most part farmers have stepped up — maybe not at the level some would like, but we’re going into three consecutive years of drought and there’s no way to determine what the weather’s going to do next year.”

Tulare County relies on the Friant-Kern canal for irrigation water in California. (Natalie Hanson/Courthouse News)

Pannu said the state does not have surface water to “give” farmers who could cut down on groundwater pumping. 

“I don't know where ag thinks the surface water is going to come from. There’s no discussion on why they’re growing crops that are extremely water hungry.” 

The nonprofit Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability's coordinator Nataly Escobedo Garcia and attorney Michael Claiborne said a new PPIC study, showing agriculture profits have only decreased 1-2%, demonstrates how GSA plans prioritize agricultural groundwater over drinking water. Only three wells get replaced per month, while more than 1,300 went dry in 2022.

The Small Community Drought Relief Program spent $200 million in 2021 and $95 million in 2022 on household water storage tanks and hauled water for residents whose wells go dry. But Newsom vetoed SB 2222 for emergency water resources for impacted communities with an eye for possible recession, and Claiborne said next year they must identify funding sources to push it through. 

“I honestly think the state water agencies are terrified of taking over these basins because of the work it will take, but they are being forced into it by the lack of local action right now,” Claiborne said. “Mitigations are going to get us nowhere, so long as you don't limit agriculture pumping. The burden will fall on the state, and the state will find itself perpetually in this problem if agricultural overpumping doesn't stop.”

Paul Gosselin, deputy director at the DWR’s Sustainable Groundwater Management Program, said the state may not release decisions on proposed groundwater management plans until the first quarter of 2023. Each basin district can start implementing plans even if they get placed under the state water board’s control — although no county has begun enforcing fines on growers overpumping past groundwater limits.

“Critically overdrafted basins have the most significant issues to deal with and if these issues are not addressed, we really don't think the basins are going to be on a path to sustainability,” Gosselin said. 

He added that the “monumental task” to change “100 years of water law and practices,” makes preserving local control key to addressing every basin’s unique issues.

“With that local control comes responsibility,” Gosselin said. 

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Categories / Environment, Government

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