The San Joaquin Valley is at a critical juncture in determining its water future. California’s largest agricultural region is ground zero for many of the state’s most difficult water management problems, including groundwater overdraft, drinking water contamination, and declines in habitat and native species.
A state mandate to bring groundwater use to sustainable levels will have a broad impact on valley agriculture and the regional economy in coming years, likely including some permanent idling of farmland.
The PPIC Water Policy Center assembled a group of regional experts last week for a half-day public event at Fresno State to discuss three overarching challenges: balancing the valley’s water supplies and demands, addressing water quality problems, and planning for beneficial water and land use transitions.
Ellen Hanak, director of the PPIC Water Policy Center, launched the day’s discussions with a summary of the valley’s water-related challenges and approaches that could help address them. “The valley faces unprecedented challenges and a lot of change,” she said. Drawing from a new PPIC report on the valley’s water future, she noted that an all-hands-on-deck approach will be needed as the scope of the problems can’t be addressed farm by farm. “The most promising approaches are those that increase flexibility, provide incentives to encourage folks to make decisions that are beneficial, and can be done cooperatively.”
The first panel focused on ways to balance supply and demand in the face of an annual groundwater deficit of nearly 2 million acre-feet a year. Some of the approaches discussed included assessing opportunities to use infrastructure and farmland to augment groundwater recharge, crediting landowners for helping to recharge aquifers, and providing flexibility to farmers—for instance with water trading—so they can avoid fallowing the most profitable crops.
“The goal is to put as many tools into the hands of the landowners to give them the opportunity to manage [groundwater sustainability] to the best of their ability,” said Eric Averett of the Rosedale-Rio Bravo Water Storage District.
The second panel tackled the complex and pressing groundwater quality issues the valley faces—from resolving safe drinking water problems in poor rural communities to addressing ongoing nitrate and salt contamination of groundwater and soils. Key challenges include finding ways to pay for safe drinking water for affected communities; identifying cost-effective approaches to reduce nitrate contamination, especially on farmlands managed by dairies; and ensuring that flooding farmland to recharge basins doesn’t harm groundwater quality.
The final panel explored ways to manage fallowed land to get multiple benefits for people and nature. “We can think about ways to manage recharge basins to create wildlife habitat,” said Nat Seavy of Point Blue Conservation Science, one of the authors of the PPIC report. “There are opportunities to restore retired land and create habitat for San Joaquin desert species, and we can restore floodplains in a way that provides flood benefits for people.”
A common theme to the day’s discussions was finding ways that local stakeholders can work together on these difficult problems. As Hanak noted, “The leadership on this has to come from the valley. State and federal support can help, but folks in the valley will need to drive the change.”
We invite you to watch the videos from this event and hope you find the discussions helpful: