FRESNO, Calif. (CN) – Growers in California’s Central Valley, famous for transforming patches of desert into the world’s most productive farmland, suffered more than any other during a recent stretch scientists mark as the Golden State’s driest since record-keeping began in 1895. The meager rain and snowfall between 2011 and 2015 forced some smaller farmers to give land back to nature or sell their remaining water supplies to bigger, wealthier farmers and developers.
Before the skies finally opened up in late 2016, the saving grace for many Central Valley farmers was groundwater. Farmers that could afford it drilled hundreds of feet below the valley floor, siphoned up water and rescued lucrative crops like almonds, pistachios and grapes.
The expensive tactic was a stopgap for desperate farmers who were virtually cut off from federal and state surface water. But the pumping came with collateral damage: Various federal, state and private canals that make up the Golden State’s complex water grid sank due to overpumping.
Scientists, farmers and lawmakers agree continuing the rate of groundwater pumping is simply unsustainable.
With the last drought in the rearview and the next one inevitable, the damaging run on groundwater has state water agencies and lawmakers mulling whether to spend hundreds of millions to patch up a federally owned canal. But critics say doing so would amount to a clear bailout for the state’s largest farmers.
“Water is the lifeblood of this region,” said Johnny Amaral, director at Friant Water Authority. “Failure is not an option.”
As he steers his Toyota pickup through Tulare County farmland on a blistering August day, Amaral suddenly points out a canal that for the last few miles had been shrouded by orchards.
Since 1951, the gravity-fed Friant-Kern Canal has delivered San Joaquin River water from Fresno to water districts south to Bakersfield. Tracing the shadow of the Sierra Nevada foothills, the 152-mile canal slinks down the valley’s eastern flank and allows an estimated 15,000 Fresno, Tulare and Kern county farmers to grow world-class produce in a region that is bone-dry for much of the year.
Towns surrounding the canal like Visalia, Exeter and Lindsay used to be famous for citrus, but farmers have wisely bent to the world’s ceaseless demand for California-grown nuts and grapes. Countless new orchards and vineyards dot the valley floor in Tulare County, helping make almonds and grapes two of California’s top agricultural commodities.
But the rush to plant the water-intensive crops – and overpumping the groundwater to quench the plants’ thirst – has caused the canal to settle in the southernmost section and form a pinch point that limits its capacity to deliver water. Experts refer to the settling as subsidence, a term Californians became familiar with during the drought.
During the last drought alone, some areas of land near the canal dropped up 2 feet.
The canal’s owner, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, and its operator, Friant Water Authority, claim it has lost 60% of its ability to deliver water. As a result, when demand is high and supplies are available, the authority has to temper flows to keep water from crossing over bridges that have sunk right along with the canal.