California water regulators put major farming area on ‘probation’

State water regulators voted unanimously Tuesday to place an agricultural hub in central California under “probation” due to excessive groundwater pumping that has dried up the region.

Citing multiple deficiencies in the Tulare Lake basin’s groundwater sustainability plans, the State Water Resources Control Board made the decision to toughen usage restrictions and reporting requirements in this southern portion of the San Joaquin Valley.

“Excessive groundwater extraction can cause long-term overdraft, failed wells, deteriorated water quality, environmental damage and irreversible land subsidence,” a draft version of the probation resolution noted.

These effects, the resolution continued, both damage infrastructure and reduce “the capacity of aquifers to store water for the future,” taking a considerable economic toll.

Tuesday’s vote constituted the first time in state history in which water regulators used their authority to crack down on community-level groundwater declines, via the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, according to The Los Angeles Times.

The State Water Board defines probation as a “first phase of intervention,” which requires most groundwater pumpers to cover the costs associated with assessment, planning and enforcement costs.

Among the dangerous effects of groundwater pumping in the region has been “land subsidence,” a phenomenon in which water removal opens sediment pore space — causing structural collapse and declines in land surface elevations, according to a State Water Board staff report.

Water extraction has taken such a dramatic toll that certain spots in the northwestern and western side of the Tulare Lake basin sunk as much as six feet from June 2015 to April 2023, per the report.

“My family would not be here if not for agriculture,” Joaquin Esquivel, the Water Board’s chair, said toward the end of Tuesday’s all-day meeting, prior to the vote.

Stressing that his grandparents were migrant farmworkers, Esquivel acknowledged the word probation could “come off as punitive, as a failure.”

“That’s not what this is. It’s a step in the road, in our discussion,” he said. “The decision doesn’t come easy.”

With the region now on probation, individuals who extract more than 2 acre-feet of groundwater annually will need to report this activity to the State Water Board and pay associated fees.

For reference, the average American household uses about one acre-foot of water each year — meaning that this requirement would apply mostly to the region’s agricultural sector.

At the Tuesday meeting, board member Laurel Firestone described the state’s role in this matter as a “backstop,” while noting that she is “cautiously optimistic” about this step.

“We don’t have a choice,” Firestone added. “This is the new climate that we’re in, the new reality that we’re in.”

For the latest news, weather, sports, and streaming video, head to The Hill.