In a first, California cracks down on farms guzzling groundwater

In much of the United States, groundwater extraction is unregulated and unlimited. There are few rules governing who can pump water from underground aquifers or how much they can take. This lack of regulation has allowed farmers nationwide to empty aquifers of trillions of gallons of water for irrigation and livestock. Droughts fueled by climate change have exacerbated this trend by depleting rivers and reservoirs, increasing reliance on this dwindling groundwater. 

In many places, such as California’s Central Valley, the results have been devastating. As aquifers decline, residential wells start to yield contaminated water or else dry up altogether, forcing families to rely on emergency deliveries of bottled water. Large-scale groundwater pumping has also caused land to sink and form fissures, threatening to collapse key infrastructure like roads, bridges, and canals. These local impacts have been the price of an economic model that provides big farmers with unlimited access to cheap water.

At a tense twelve-hour hearing that lasted well into the night on Tuesday, California officials struck a big blow against that model. The state board that regulates water voted unanimously to take control of groundwater in the Tulare Lake subbasin, one of the state’s largest farming areas, imposing a first-of-its-kind mandatory fee on water pumping by farmers in the area.

The decision to place the basin’s water users on “probation,” a punishment for not managing their water effectively, could force some of the region’s largest land barons to pay millions of dollars in fees or stop cultivating huge sections of their farmland.

The vote sets up a high-stakes enforcement fight with some of the state’s most powerful farmers, who have fought for years to avoid state intervention on their profitable dairy pens and tomato fields. The state will start measuring water usage and collecting fines later this year, but it has never attempted any such enforcement action before, and there is no way to know yet whether farmers will comply with the fees.

The larger question is whether the state’s policing effort will succeed in forcing a long-term reduction to groundwater usage in the state’s agricultural areas. The success or failure of this effort matters not just for California but also for many other pasture-rich states, from Nevada to Nebraska, that are trying to police their groundwater. If the Golden State can cut water usage without causing political or economic upheaval, it will leave a blueprint for other states trying to manage scarce water.

“Groundwater is one of these collective resources where your pumping has an impact on a lot of other people, and you have to have a mechanism to manage that,” said Ellen Hanak, an economist and water expert at the Public Policy Institute of California, a think tank. “I seriously doubt that the state wants to be taking over basins and managing them, but there has to be a backstop.”

The probation vote for Tulare Lake comes almost a decade after the California lawmakers passed the landmark Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, which requires water users in threatened areas across the state to draft plans for healing their depleted aquifers by 2040. The Central Valley pumps around 7 million acre-feet of groundwater per year, enough to supply more than 15 million average American households, and almost all of it is used for agriculture. 

The vast majority of the state’s 89 troubled groundwater basins have already created viable plans for dealing with the crisis, agreeing to fallow some farmland or replenish aquifers by capturing rainwater. 

But six laggard basins in the Central Valley have never presented the state with adequate plans for fixing their groundwater deficits. Tulare Lake in particular has slow-walked its planning, even as aquifer levels in the area have plummeted and huge sections of land have sunk by several feet. Water officials from the area have submitted several different water management plans with the state over the past few years, and during Tuesday’s hearing even said they would soon unveil another plan that includes a commitment to use less water for farming. But none of this documentation convinced the state that it could trust local officials to stop the rapid decline of the area’s aquifers.

The probation will force all significant water users in the basin to measure their well water usage starting in July, something that has never been done or even attempted in the Central Valley. It will charge these users a fee of $20 for every acre-foot of water they use, with exceptions for individual households, impoverished communities, and public institutions like schools. That fee is lower than the fees that water officials in other basins have voluntarily imposed on large users.

The basin could exit probation within months if local water leaders present the state with a plan that endorses major usage reductions. One state official said he hoped the probation period would be “short.”

“The reality is that probation is a step in the process,” said E. Joaquin Esquivel, the chair of the state water board. “It’s the forcing of something that the locals aren’t willing to do.”

The major forces in the Tulare Lake area are J.G. Boswell, a massive farming company that has dominated Central Valley politics for almost a century, and Sandridge Partners, another large farming enterprise owned by the Bay Area real estate magnate John Vidovich. These two companies together own tens of thousands of acres of tomatoes, nuts, and dairy farms. They both have representatives on the agencies charged with managing groundwater in the Tulare Lake basin. (A representative for the group of groundwater agencies in the basin didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.)

The farmland owned by these two companies sits atop the former site of Tulare Lake, once the largest body of freshwater west of the Mississippi River. Farmers drained the lake in the late 19th century so they could cultivate the fertile soil beneath it, but the lake reappears during wet years as flooded rivers roar down from the Sierra Nevada mountains and fill the Central Valley. When the lake reappeared last year, Boswell and other landowners erected makeshift levees to protect their valuable crops.

Enforcement of the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act will transform this landscape and the rest of the fertile Central Valley. Despite recent investments in more efficient drip irrigation systems and recharge projects that can refill aquifers, most areas in the state will have no choice but to farm less land in order to comply with the law by 2040. According to one study from the Public Policy Institute of California, the law will eliminate between 500,000 and 1 million acres of irrigated crops in the valley, or between 10 and 20 percent of the valley’s agricultural land.  

Tulare Lake farmers who spoke at the hearing said the fees could devastate their industry. 

“My concern is with the fiscal strain you’re placing on the small farmers,” said Aaron Freitas, a fourth-generation nut farmer who helps run a smaller operation in the basin, at the hearing. “It’s just not encouraging for us to continue our work or protect the future for our children.”

The state believes this reduction is necessary in order to protect low-income communities and critical infrastructure from the devastating effects of subsidence. But enforcing the transition won’t be easy, especially because the major farmers have drawn water with impunity for so long. Some observers worry that the decision to send Tulare Lake into probation could lead to a dangerous confrontation between state regulators and local agricultural interests.

“There may have to be some kind of law enforcement agency out there when the state goes to meter wells for the fees,” said a person who has been closely involved with implementing the groundwater law, who spoke anonymously because they weren’t authorized to speculate about the consequences of the probation decision. “That’s the worst case-scenario.” 

*Correction: Due to an editing error, an earlier version of this article mistakenly suggested that many states, including Idaho and Nebraska, have not regulated groundwater.


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