[Marxism] Beneath California Crops, Groundwater Crisis Grows

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
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 
his way.

“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 
growers’ organization.

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 
California dominates.

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 
seep downward.

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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