[Marxism] Beneath California Crops, Groundwater Crisis Grows
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Mon Apr 6 08:21:10 MDT 2015
NY Times, Apr. 6 2015
Beneath California Crops, Groundwater Crisis Grows
By JUSTIN GILLIS and MATT RICHTEL
Even as the worst drought in decades ravages California, and its cities
face mandatory cuts in water use, millions of pounds of thirsty crops
like oranges, tomatoes and almonds continue to stream out of the state
and onto the nation’s grocery shelves.
But the way that California farmers have pulled off that feat is a case
study in the unwise use of natural resources, many experts say. Farmers
are drilling wells at a feverish pace and pumping billions of gallons of
water from the ground, depleting a resource that was critically
endangered even before the drought, now in its fourth year, began.
California has pushed harder than any other state to adapt to a changing
climate, but scientists warn that improving its management of precious
groundwater supplies will shape whether it can continue to supply more
than half the nation’s fruits and vegetables on a hotter planet.
California Drought Tests History of Endless GrowthAPRIL 5, 2015
In some places, water tables have dropped 50 feet or more in just a few
years. With less underground water to buoy it, the land surface is
sinking as much as a foot a year in spots, causing roads to buckle and
bridges to crack. Shallow wells have run dry, depriving several poor
communities of water.
Scientists say some of the underground water-storing formations so
critical to California’s future — typically, saturated layers of sand or
clay — are being permanently damaged by the excess pumping, and will
never again store as much water as farmers are pulling out.
“Climate conditions have exposed our house of cards,” said Jay
Famiglietti, a NASA scientist in Pasadena who studies water supplies in
California and elsewhere. “The withdrawals far outstrip the
replenishment. We can’t keep doing this.”
Cannon Michael, a farmer who grows tomatoes, melons and corn on 10,500
acres in the town of Los Banos, in the Central Valley, has high priority
rights to surface water, which he inherited with his family’s land. But
rampant groundwater pumping by farmers near him is causing some of the
nearby land to sink, disturbing canals that would normally bring water
“Now, water is going to have to flow uphill,” said Mr. Michael, who
plans to fallow 2,300 acres this year.
In the midst of this water crisis, Gov. Jerry Brown and his legislative
allies pulled off something of a political miracle last year, overcoming
decades of resistance from the farm lobby to adopt the state’s first
groundwater law with teeth. California, so far ahead of the country on
other environmental issues, became the last state in the arid West to
move toward serious limits on the use of its groundwater.
Last week, Mr. Brown imposed mandatory cuts in urban water use, the
first ever. He exempted farmers, who already had to deal with huge
reductions in surface water from the state’s irrigation works. Mr. Brown
defended the decision on ABC’s “This Week” on Sunday, saying, “They’re
providing most of the fruits and vegetables of America to a significant
part of the world.”
In normal times, agriculture consumes roughly 80 percent of the surface
water available for human use in California, and experts say the state’s
water crisis will not be solved without a major contribution from farmers.
California’s greatest resource in dry times is not its surface
reservoirs, though, but its groundwater, and scientists say the drought
has made the need for better controls obvious. While courts have taken
charge in a few areas and imposed pumping limits, groundwater in most of
the state has been a resource anyone could grab.
Yet putting strict limits in place is expected to take years. The new
law, which took effect Jan. 1, does not call for reaching sustainability
until the 2040s. Sustainability is vaguely defined in the statute, but
in most basins will presumably mean a long-term balance between water
going into the ground and water coming out. Scientists have no real idea
if the groundwater supplies can last until the 2040s.
Eighty percent of the water used by humans in California goes to
agriculture. The state’s Central Valley has 17 percent of the irrigated
land in the United States and produces a quarter of the nation’s food.
But growing that food takes more water than is available from rain and
snow, even in wet years.
“I wish we could do it faster,” Mark Cowin, director of California’s
Department of Water Resources, said in an interview. “I wish we would
have started decades ago.”
But Mr. Cowin noted that the state, after neglecting groundwater
management for so long, had a lot of catching up to do. Years of
bureaucratic reorganization and rule-drafting lie ahead. “This is the
biggest game-changer of California water management of my generation,”
Mr. Cowin said.
In the near term, as the drought wears on and the scramble for water
intensifies, farmers are among the victims of the drilling frenzy, as
well as among its beneficiaries.
Growers with older, shallower wells are watching them go dry as
neighbors drill deeper and suck the water table down. Pumping takes huge
amounts of electricity to pull up deep water, and costs are rising. Some
farmers are going into substantial debt to drill deeper wells, engaging
in an arms race with their neighbors that they cannot afford to lose.
“You see the lack of regulation hurting the agricultural community as
much as it hurts anybody else,” said Doug Obegi, a lawyer with the
Natural Resources Defense Council in San Francisco.
Against this backdrop, water-thirsty crops like almonds are still being
planted in some parts of the Central Valley to supply an insatiable
global demand that is yielding high prices.
The land devoted to almond orchards in California has doubled in 20
years, to 860,000 acres. The industry has been working hard to improve
its efficiency, but growing a single almond can still require as much as
a gallon of California’s precious water.
The expansion of almonds, walnuts and other water-guzzling tree and vine
crops has come under sharp criticism from some urban Californians. The
groves make agriculture less flexible because the land cannot be idled
in a drought without killing the trees.
Not even the strongest advocates of water management foresee a system in
which California farmers are told what they can plant. As the new system
evolves, though, the growers might well be given strict limits on how
much groundwater they can pump, which could effectively rule out
permanent crops like nuts and berries in some areas.
“We want to be careful in dealing with this drought not to go down the
command-and-control route if we can avoid it,” said Daniel Sumner,
professor of agricultural and resource economics at the University of
California, Davis. “It interrupts the flexibility, the creativity and
the resilience that people in agriculture have already been using to
deal with severe water cutbacks.”
So far, the over-pumping of groundwater has helped farmers manage
through three parched growing seasons.
They were forced to idle only about 5 percent of the state’s irrigated
land last year, though the figure is likely to be higher in 2015. The
farmers have directed water to the highest-value crops, cutting lesser
crops like alfalfa.
They have bought and sold surface water among themselves, making the
best use of the available supply, experts like Dr. Sumner say. And the
farmers’ success at coping with the drought has meant relatively few
layoffs of low-income farmworkers.
Still, costs are up and profits are down for many farmers and the
thousands of small businesses that depend on them, spreading pain
throughout the Central Valley and beyond. “It’s been a tough couple of
years, and it’s just getting tougher in rural parts of California,” said
Dave Kranz, a spokesman for the California Farm Bureau Federation, a
Because groundwater has helped keep production up, replacing a large
proportion of the surface water farmers have lost, the drought has not
led to big price increases at the national level, even for crops that
Once the drought ends, a growing population and a climate altered by
human-caused global warming will continue to put California’s water
system under stress, experts say. A major question is how to manage the
groundwater to get Californians through dry years.
Meeting that goal may have as much to do with how surface water is
managed as with how much is pumped from the ground.
Several California experts used the metaphor of a bank account to
describe the state’s groundwater supply. Deposits need to be made in
good times, they said, so that the water can be withdrawn in hard times.
Yet for decades, California farmers have been overdrawing many of the
state’s water-holding formations — its aquifers — even in years when
surface water for irrigation was plentiful, the equivalent of
overdrawing a checking account.
That will need to change, the experts said, with pumping being limited
or even prohibited in wet years so that the underground water supply can
recharge. Some land may need to be flooded on purpose so the water can
The need for groundwater recharge may ultimately limit how much water
farmers can have from the surface irrigation system, even in flush years
— the same way that deposits in a bank account limit how many fancy
dinners one can eat. Yet in a state where irrigation rights have been
zealously guarded for generations, such limitations may not go down easily.
“It would be silly to think you are not going to have any fights,” said
Denise England, the water expert for Tulare County, toward the southern
end of the Central Valley. She cited an aphorism of the West: “Whiskey’s
for drinking, and water’s for fighting over.”
John Schwartz and Nelson D. Schwartz contributed reporting.
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