A few years back, during the height of the drought, it seemed that everyone knew that farmers in general — and almond farmers in particular — were using too much of California’s water. Fast forward to 2023. The drought is over, having been spectacularly eradicated by one of the wettest winters in our state’s history, and thousands of acres of almond orchards in the “driest” part of the Central Valley are under the water of a semi-permanent lake. The attention of the general public is now more focused on flooding linked to climate change than drought.
But snowmelt and reservoirs are not the primary source of water for most people, farms and businesses in California: groundwater is. And acquifers in many parts of the state don’t recover when we have a single wet year or even several of them.
On the ground in the Central Valley, home to most of the world’s almond trees, farmers are just beginning to grapple with a law passed during the drought. The Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA) mandates that all groundwater basins in the Central Valley and other acquifer-dependent areas of California to determine how much water they actually have, and then make sure they don’t overuse it. The law provides a timeline, money and tools to help achieve the goal, and penalties for failure to do so. But otherwise it leaves the process largely up to local agencies, entities, and landowners.
In many of the historically driest parts of the valley, the effects were almost immediate. Farmers without access to reliable surface water from reservoirs have had to “retire” thousands of acres of land they had been farming using groundwater from acquifers that everyone knew were not being recharged. You probably haven’t seen these stories on the news or social media.
Terra Firma farms in two different watersheds, roughly corresponding to the two counties we farm in. Neither has been definitively defined as “Unsustainable” overall under SGMA. However, our region is still required to create the mechanisms to determine total groundwater supplies and usage. If they are actually sustainable, we have to keep them that way going forward. If not, action must be taken to reduce usage. It’s not an easy task.
In California, everyone who owns a piece of land technically owns the rights to the water under it. You can’t drill a well and simply sell the water like you might drill for oil — it must be used “beneficially”. Local governments can and do regulate well-drilling. But until SGMA, there has never been a way of regulating how much water a landowner pumps from a well. Groundwater had remained essentially a 19th century, individualist, “wild west” type of paradigm.
SMGA recognizes that even within a single watershed, there a spectrum running from areas where there is abundant groundwater to others where there is little or none. That is certainly true in both Yolo and Solano counties where we farm. We have ranches where we have more water than we need, and others where we are limited as to how much we can grow — especially in drought years. Several of our wells had issues in the 2014-2106 drought and needed to be replaced or modified. But up until now, there was nowhere to report that type of information so it could be collected and evaluated.
In our watersheds, SGMA is being implemented by newly formed agencies made up of local governments, water districts, farmers and other stakeholders tasked with evaluating and then regulating groundwater resources. Information about those resources will be public and available for everyone to see. And water users in areas where groundwater is overtaxed may find that their use will be restricted in the future.
Beyond those basic goals, groundwater agencies will also be working to increase collaboration between governments, water districts, landowners and others to proactively enhance our collective groundwater resources. SGMA provides millions in funding for innovative projects — such as groundwater recharge — to help everyone work together where previously, there were no mechanisms to do so.
Groundwater overuse was always a more complicated issue than simply “almonds use too much water”, but the solutions are even more complex and nuanced. That makes it unlikely that the hard work of achieving sustainability will get much attention from the general public. Which is sad, because I think everyone needs to hear about successful collective solutions to big problems right now.