California cracks down on water pumping: ‘The ground is collapsing’

<span>Irrigation ditch in the San Joaquin valley, California.</span><span>Photograph: Education Images/Universal Images Group/Getty Images</span>
Irrigation ditch in the San Joaquin valley, California.Photograph: Education Images/Universal Images Group/Getty Images

Even after two back-to-back wet years, California’s water wars are far from over. On Tuesday, state water officials took an unprecedented step to intervene in the destructive pumping of depleted groundwater in the state’s sprawling agricultural heartland.

The decision puts a farming region known as the Tulare Lake groundwater subbasin, which includes roughly 837 sq miles in the rural San Joaquin valley, on “probation” in accordance with a sustainable groundwater use law passed a decade ago. Large water users will face fees and state oversight of their pumping.

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The move, which water officials reassured farmers would be lifted if local agencies progress on developing stronger sustainability plans to mitigate issues, is the first of its kind – but has been years in the making. Over-pumping of groundwater in this region has caused the land to collapse faster than in almost any other area in the country, in some places sinking more than a foot every year. Officials say the Tulare Lake groundwater subbasin failed for years to provide adequate plans to mitigate their well-known water problems.

Such plans are required under California’s 2014 Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA), a landmark law that required local agencies to come up with their own long-term strategies to curb over-extraction and empowers the state to supervise and enforce them. Probation is a compulsory step to set lagging local agencies back on track to achieve sustainability goals that must be met by 2040.

The Tulare Lake subbasin is one of six the state has put up for possible probation due to inadequate plans, all in the San Joaquin valley, the powerhouse of California’s more than $50bn agricultural industry. The crackdown here has been met with a strong backlash.

The decision followed a nine-hour hearing on Tuesday where farmers protested the economic toll it would take on their industry. They cast the expected fees on their pumping as a devastating blow to the work they do and their ability to do it in the future.

“We all know there are several major farms that have filed bankruptcy in the last several months – it’s dire,” Doug Freitas, a third-generation farmer with 700 acres of land in the basin, said at Tuesday’s hearing. “I believe thousands of family farms and people who depend on groundwater will be displaced and homeless if we don’t take action on these excessive costs.”

Meanwhile, the decision was urged by clean water and environmental advocates who have called for more to be done to rein in dangerous overuse of groundwater.

“I see where the sensitivity is, but they have to remind themselves – they are farming on a lake that they pumped down,” Fred Briones, a representative of the Big Valley Pomo tribe said before the vote, referring to Tulare Lake, a vast freshwater lake that was drained to make room for agriculture. He added that Indigenous people who once flourished on these lands no longer have water rights there. “As we watch the farmers fight amongst each other, the ground is collapsing underneath their feet.”

Tensions were on full display during the hearing as multigenerational farming families, dairy owners and representatives of local water agencies spoke at length, pushing the board to delay probation.

One local elected official, Doug Verboon, a Kings county supervisor, who urged the state to act, said he’d been threatened for his position. “It’s difficult to stand up here, because I have people behind me that wish I would just shut the hell up,” he said.

The board, meanwhile, framed its position as softly as possible throughout the hearing, reminding triggered attendees that probation is temporary. But, according to the law, if the groups across the San Joaquin valley don’t make adequate progress within a year, further pumping restrictions could be put in place.

For now, landowners will have to install and pay for meters that show how much they’re pumping, as well as fees for groundwater use. During probation, pumpers will be charged a base fee of $300 for each well each year plus $20 per acre-foot of water extracted; an acre-foot is a measurement used for large amounts of water, equal to roughly the amount of water needed to cover an acre of land in a foot of water. These costs, all together, are expected to mount to millions.

“We don’t take this decision at all lightly,” said Joaquin Esquivel, chair of the state water resources control board, at the start of the hearing, adding that associated fees inflicted on extractors are not to “punish the basins but to pay for the additional workload”.

At Tuesday’s hearing, farmers also spoke at length about how hard they have worked to curb groundwater overuse, and the difficult climate and economic conditions facing farmers across the country.

Greg Gatzka, city manager of Corcoran, a city listed by the state as a severely disadvantaged community, called on the board to consider the unintended consequences of the action, including the impact to urban residents depending on a local economy held up by agriculture. “We are the most vulnerable city that can be impacted by this,” he said, noting that things like sales taxes from farm equipment could drop.

Devon Matthis, a California assemblymember who represents the district affected by the probation, submitted a statement outlining the future implications of the decisions. “Food grows where water flows – my district feeds the state,” he said, adding that local water managers across the state would be watching what happens. “I ask that you remember who the stakeholders are and the negative effects the ag industry will suffer due to the state-mandated probation.”

The fees, which were cut in half from the initial proposed amount, will begin in mid-July, along with requirements for landowners to record their extractions. Reports on progress will also be required annually from the subbasin beginning in December.