Here’s a question: Before you moved to your current location, did you investigate the water source for your residence? If you bought a house, did you receive a guarantee that the water source would last forever? If you’re like most people, it probably didn’t even occur to you.
The majority of water used in California is pumped out of the ground, but for over a century, groundwater use was unregulated. In 2014, the state passed the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA). Like many laws in our state, most Californians know little about it and many don’t even know it exists. The goal of the law is evident in its title: to end the practice of pumping more water out of the ground than is added back to aquifers every year. The devil, as always, is in the details.
Monitoring and regulating the use of a previously unregulated resource is a massive undertaking. SGMA recognizes that “All Groundwater is Local”, so while the state is overseeing the effort, most of the work of implementation was delegated to local agencies — some of which did not exist when the bill was passed. The timeline mandating establishment of those agencies is rapidly drawing to a close. Within two years, every square mile of California where people use groundwater will be organized into Groundwater Management Districts: quasi-government agencies with boards made up of community members and leaders. Some of those districts will overlap existing municipalities or irrigation districts, and be staffed by them. Others will be brand new entities.
Just the task of organizing these districts is huge and revolutionary. But like so many other essential components of our society, they will remain unknown to the average Californian. Very few people will follow their local SGMA boards on Twitter, and very few people will choose to watch their meetings on Zoom. Farmers, on the other hand, will be paying close attention.
All Californians who use groundwater will now how to pay for it — or pay more — as their local municipality’s costs for following the rules must be covered by taxes or fees. And in order to achieve sustainability, some agencies will begin restricting the amount of groundwater that can be pumped. But virtually no urban water user in California will be told “no more groundwater for you”.
In rural areas that won’t be the case. Entire zip codes have already been designated as “water unsustainable”, places where the ground is sinking every year due to overpumping and wells have been drilled deeper every five or ten years. These “high risk” areas were the first to fall under the domain of SGMA, almost ten years ago. Farmers in those areas have already received or will be receiving “Phase Down” notices informing them that they must reduce their pumping of groundwater over the next 30 years. In several areas, this “phase down” goes to zero: no more pumping by 2045. Translation: no more farming.
It can be said that some of these areas probably never should have been farmed in the first place. In others, landowners planted crops that need more water than is sustainable, for example, orchard crops in places where it doesn’t rain enough even in wet years to keep them alive through the winter. Either way, the transition will be wrenching for farmers and impactful for entire communities.
It’s easy to throw out criticisms like “farmers use too much water” or “farming in the desert is unsustainable”. But before SGMA passed, most farmers assumed that they could drill a well and pump water on their land if they could grow a crop that would justify the expense. If you bought a piece of farmland, you might assume the same. Especially if all your neighbors were doing it. And if you grew up on your family’s farm, you might believe that drilling a new well was your birthright.
Terra Firma is located in one of the most water-sustainable areas in California. But it’s pure luck that we ended up here.
Our farm started in Yolo County in 1993, but in 2003 we bought land across the creek in Solano County. The 1990s had been one of the wettest decades in the last 50 years, and that trend continued after Y2K. When we worried about water, it was about flooding and wet weather. There was always more than enough for irrigation. Then came the drought of the twenty-oughts.
Solano County has its own local reservoir that is filled naturally by local rainfall and runoff (Many of the reservoirs in Northern California are filled with water pumped in from the Sierra). Lake Berryessa provides most of the water for irrigated agriculture in the county, as well as the majority of the urban water. Since it was completed in the 1960s, it has never run out of water. During the last drought, our water district never even limited deliveries. As a result, the groundwater in most of the county is not overused, and levels are in fact higher in many areas than they were in the 1950s.
Meanwhile, just across Putah Creek in Yolo County, the groundwater situation is much more complicated. Some areas are fully sustainable, but others are questionable and there are a few pockets where SGMA will mandate that farming be abandoned or drastically altered. Orchards and vineyards will have to be removed, and will be replaced by unirrigated uses like livestock grazing.
Within a decade or two, SGMA’s regulation of agriculture will very likely achieve the goal of bringing our state’s use of groundwater closer to sustainability. But there will remain an enormous elephant in the room. Urban and suburban growth in California continues at a blistering pace, and as recently as last month, most Californians were using more water than they did before the current drought started. Groundwater is not the only resource we are using unsustainably: the majority of our reservoirs are “oversubscribed”. They no longer fill up as often as they used to, and they empty out more quickly. The warmer, drier climate we’re experiencing increases evaporation. And most new houses are built in hotter inland areas where more water is needed to water bigger lawns, fill pools, etc. New reservoirs are not being built to provide that water.
Since I started farming, agriculture has been the scapegoat for our state’s overall overuse of water. Yet a majority of Californians live in areas where the local water resources could never sustain the current population, and tens of millions get their water from other states. As SGMA implementation moves forward, millions of acres of farmland are fallowed while millions more houses are built. Agriculture will be forced to become sustainable in its water use, but our state will still have to confront the fundamental unsustainability of our water situation.