This commentary was published in the Fresno Bee on September 18, 2023.
The San Joaquin Valley’s agricultural prosperity has been built, in part, on the use of groundwater. It’s made the desert bloom, but payment has come due: the land above these over-tapped aquifers is sinking, damaging roads, buildings, and canals essential for water transport. Drinking water wells are going dry, and groundwater reserves are falling. The 2014 Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA) was passed to right the ship and bring groundwater use back to sustainable levels by 2040.
SGMA has been something of a bogeyman for the San Joaquin Valley—growers know they’ll need to reduce water use, which is never easy. But SGMA is also the valley’s greatest hope for restoring depleted aquifers and bringing groundwater use back to a level that will allow the valley to continue to thrive.
SGMA’s implementation will bring costs, however, and demand some tough choices. Even in the best-case scenario—with major efforts to expand groundwater recharge—some 500,000 acres will need to be taken out of irrigated production in the valley. That’s a lot of fallowed land. For the past seven years, PPIC has been studying this coming transition and speaking with a broad range of stakeholders in the valley. And what we heard over and over, from people across the board, is that unplanned, haphazard fallowing would harm the valley.
How? The list is legion: the spread of noxious weeds, increased dust, lost income, and lost employment—not just for growers and agricultural workers but for those who work in related industries. These changes would have ripple effects across the valley, particularly for low-income communities that depend on agriculture.
Yet in our conversations, all was not doom and gloom. In fact, there’s a growing acceptance that things have to change. As the new head of Westlands Water District, Allison Febbo, told Politico, “now we’re finally in the stage of acceptance and moving forward, and how are we going to live with this new future.” Valley residents understand that new opportunities may arise—ways to soften the blow, keep people employed, and keep the land productive.
But how do we get from here to there? We’ve spent years researching this, and we have some suggestions:
Capture more water in wet years. The valley is already a global leader in recharging groundwater, but the experience in 2023—a banner year—shows there’s room to do better. Priorities include incentivizing more growers to spread water on their lands and expanding conveyance to get water to the best places.
Support robust and transparent water markets. As water scarcity grows, being able to move both surface water and groundwater to the best and most high-value uses will reduce the cost of adaptation. Well-structured water markets could even reduce pressure on rural drinking water supplies and benefit smaller farms that participate.
Pilot more efforts to repurpose farmland. Idle farmland could cause problems for the valley. Promising alternative land uses include solar development, water-limited cropping, habitat restoration, recharge basins, and water-efficient new housing.
Tread carefully. Project proponents should work to avoid or mitigate unintended consequences of land and water use changes, such as increased land subsidence, poor air quality, or higher costs for at-risk sectors.
Ramp up coordination and cooperation. This one is more easily said than done. But to implement new water supply projects or water trading, no one can go it alone. Groundwater sustainability agencies will need to team up with local, state, and federal partners to create basin-wide and regional plans. Integrating farmland repurposing with land and energy planning can help leverage their benefits at scale.
Change is never easy. But implementing SGMA can help the valley keep its agricultural sector healthy, while restoring wildlife habitat and even helping the state meet its clean energy goals. By 2040, the valley will look different. But those who embrace the changes and overcome differences to work together will shape the valley’s future—and ensure that its future is bright.