For the past seven years, the PPIC Water Policy Center has been researching how the San Joaquin Valley can adapt to a future with less water. On September 20, we held a special half-day event on the Fresno State campus that drew together an array of growers, water managers, agency staff, and others to discuss how to best manage the changes ahead.
Fresno State President Saúl Jiménez-Sandoval acknowledged the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act’s (SGMA) importance to the valley in his opening remarks. “We are deeply aware that water produces crops in our valley—over 250 commodities…food that cannot be produced elsewhere.” As water supplies decline, said Central Valley Community Foundation CEO Ashley Swearengin, it is key to bring all the valley’s many players to the table to hammer out coping strategies.
The need for coordination is paramount, given the magnitude of the challenge. As PPIC research fellow Andrew Ayres explained, reducing groundwater pumping ultimately will help the valley maintain its robust agricultural industry and protect communities. But even with new water supplies, our research found that valley agriculture will need to occupy a smaller footprint than it does now: at least 500,000 acres of farmland will likely need to come out of intensively irrigated production.
Groundwater sustainability agencies (GSAs) are at the forefront of the effort to reduce pumping and restore the valley’s groundwater. Moderator Alvar Escriva-Bou asked how SGMA implementation’s been going so far, and the reaction was mixed. Kassy Chauhan of the North King GSA was pleased that her GSA’s groundwater sustainability plan passed muster with the state. But the path wasn’t easy, she said, and coordination was key. “You have to stay together. As things get tough, it’s very easy to fragment.”
In contrast, Tulare Irrigation District head Aaron Fukuda shared how it felt when the Mid-Kaweah GSA’s groundwater sustainability plan was deemed inadequate. “Our therapist is telling us we’re dealing much better with our inadequacy right now,” he said to scattered laughter. But, he said, his growers were actually very disappointed to receive the inadequate designation after putting in so much work. Fukuda saw a silver lining in their reaction, however: “It showed me they’re committed to the process.” That’s a marked change from the early days, he said.
Panelists acknowledged that the return of rain this past winter and spring brought some relief to a valley struggling under years of drought. Grower Don Cameron described being pleasantly surprised by the wet winter, which allowed many to recharge groundwater basins. There was so much water, in fact, that new problems developed. “I can guarantee you,” he said with a rueful grin, “that levees only break in the middle of the night.”
The abundant recharge opportunities did bring some concerns, however. Self-Help Enterprise’s Sonia Sanchez emphasized the need to help small valley communities that are struggling with dry wells and drinking water contamination—and to ensure that robust testing for water quality is in place. She praised the Mid-Kaweah GSA’s work to recharge wells around the small community of Okieville as one example of a successful partnership.
The second panel, moderated by PPIC’s Caity Peterson, took a close look at what might happen to lands leaving intensively irrigated production. Westlands’ new general manager Allison Febbo said that growers now accept that “to have sustainable agriculture,” she said, “we have to have it sized correctly.” Solar energy is emerging as a promising alternative land use, and Febbo predicts that some 75,000 acres or more of Westlands land will transition to solar in the coming years.
Eric Averett of Atlas Water stressed the importance of aggregating lands in transition to achieve economies of scale, whether it’s for solar conversion or habitat restoration. “Forty-acre parcels patchworked throughout the region doesn’t get us where we need to be,” he said. Erica Brand of the California Energy Commission agreed, explaining that utility-scale solar demands a considerable amount of land. But, she said, it offers real opportunity to land managers. The challenge will be transmission: “It takes 10 years or more to build new transmission in California.”
The good news is that there is money for pilot projects, said Ann Hayden of the Environmental Defense Fund. The Multi-Benefit Land Repurposing Program, she said, is getting money out the door to support projects across the valley.
The key, said grower Sarah Woolf in the final panel, moderated by PPIC’s Ellen Hanak, is that every drop of water must go to multiple uses. And she made a convincing case that working collaboratively demands patience. “Agriculture gets a bad rap for not wanting to do habitat,” she said. “But we don’t know how to do the environmental component. We’re farmers; we grow crops.” But the valley is finding ways to work together, she said.
Rey León, mayor of Huron, stressed the need to forge new partnerships. “There’s no other way to do it. Climate resiliency can’t happen without social cohesion—especially in the San Joaquin Valley.” He stressed the importance of making sure these transitions work for agriculture’s workforce—farmworkers who are often paid minimum wage and often lack healthcare and retirement benefits.
California Department of Water Resources director Karla Nemeth acknowledged that the path towards sustainability hasn’t been easy. “We’ve got this terrific history of fighting over water in California,” she said. But the rainy winter of 2022–23 helped “remind us that there’s actually quite a lot that we can do, right now” to get more water into the ground. And, she stressed, we have to lift up communities that have been left behind.
Adam Nickels of the US Bureau of Reclamation brought welcome news—that there is federal money for this effort. That infusion of cash will help further cautious optimism in the valley. “I’m optimistic about the fact that everyone in California is recognizing we have a problem,” said Sarah Woolf. “That will help us come to better solutions.”
As Don Cameron said at the beginning of the day, “When you have farmers’ livelihoods at stake, they get pretty creative.” And that creativity will be needed.
We invite you to watch the videos from this event: