San Joaquin Valley projected to lose 20% of water by 2040

The Public Policy Institute of California reports updated findings on water supply throughout the Valley providing options to prevent heavy economic losses over the next two decades

CENTRAL VALLEY – An updated report on the San Joaquin Valley’s water crisis shows the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act is not enough and additional water trading measures will need to be taken in order to stabilize local agricultural economies.

The Public Policy Institute of California put out a policy brief on the future of agriculture in the San Joaquin Valley. Its analysis of the next 20 years indicates that annual water supplies for the Valley could decline by 10 to 20%. The Valley has been long understood to be the breadbasket of the United States and is home to the nation’s top three agricultural counties. However, without more innovative solutions, the Valley will likely have to fallow 900,000 acres of farmland and and cost 50,000 jobs leading to a major loss in the local economies

The report indicates that the loss of almost a million acres is unavoidable, but the report also provides data driven suggestions on how to make the unavoidable more bearable. Main author of the study Alvar Escriva-Bou said allowing for more wide spread water allocations could solve a large portion of the problem. 

“What the Valley needs, is actually to relocate water to ensure to keep up with productivity and with production and jobs,” Escriva-Bou said. “If we don’t allow for this reallocation, we will have a really big [loss] in revenues, profits and jobs.”

The San Joaquin Valley is home to Fresno, Kern and Tulare counties, who are three of the nations top agricultural communities. In 2018, around 4.5 million acres of cropland used 16.1 million acre-feet (maf) of water for irrigation. As many make attempts to move toward water sustainability, some of those efforts will provide benefits down the road, but are more harmful in the short term, like the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA). 

SGMA was enacted in 2014 and requires local water users to create groundwater sustainability agencies to bring water availability and use into balance at the local level. The goal is to bring water levels to a sustainable level by 2040, by reducing water use and the development of new water supplies. The problem however, when adding climate change and environmental regulations on top of SGMA, is that the amount of affected acreage only grows. 

Photo by Rigo Moran

Not to mention the addition of limited water trading to the already problematic combination of water cuts from SGMA, climate change and increased environmental regulations. If expanded water trading is not made available, it could cause a Gross Domestic Product (GDP) decline of more than $4.5 billion. In addition, employment would drop by nearly 50,000 and the regional economic activity by 2.3%.

“What is really important is how many times [there are false] statistics about agriculture representing 2% of the state GDP and in the San Joaquin Valley actually, agriculture provides 14% of GDP and 17% of employment,” Escriva-Bou said. “So [agriculture] is a really important contributor to the economy.”

Water trading

The study explains that inflexible water management is a costly way to cope with growing water scarcity.  Escriva-Bou said the study always evaluates the data from a most constrained scenario to allow for a worst case rather than best case scenario. One option explained in the study is how water trading would help significantly reduce economic losses at the regional level by one third, 33% for GDP and 33% for jobs.

The study also explains that more flexibility will further reduce costs along with the combination of farmers switching to less water heavy crops like perennial nuts and fruits. 

“With basin-wide trading and valley-wide surface trading, GDP losses are 42–50% lower, and job losses 37–44% lower, than with inflexible water management,” according to the policy brief.

Need for new water supplies

In addition to localized trading, the study suggests new supplies would further mitigate losses. He said there are several different ways to accomplish groundwater recharge like cropland recharge. Unfortunately it is not an easy task because there are additional regulations in order to receive the go ahead for groundwater recharge.

“[Crop irrigation] is one of the most affordable options because it is just capturing the water that is usually [caught] during floods, that we don’t need,” Escriva-Bou said. “So we could capture that water and put it into the ground in different ways. There are more ways but [ground and cropland recharge] are the most important.”

However Escriva-Bou said recharge is difficult right now because there are regulatory constraints on how to recharge water. He said the water board has to provide water rights in order for anyone to recharge their water. Some issues surround how long it takes to receive approval from the board as well as having the infrastructure required to properly recharge water. The reason cropland recharge is a good option is because the infrastructure is already in place.

As Escriva-Bou said water trading is one of the best options to help the water crisis, but it could adversely affect some agricultural industries. With water trading, water is moved around by the importance of higher volume crops, or higher paying crops. That means water would be taken away from feed crops like alfalfa or irrigated pasture type crops. This measure would raise costs for the dairy, beef and related industries. It would require local entities to have to buy these products elsewhere or find substitutes according to the study. 

“Although these adverse impacts are overshadowed by the larger benefits of water trading, transitional support for affected communities may be warranted,” the study stated.

Additionally the study stated the Valley will still need to prepare for large increases to fallowed land. Trading water reduces the socioeconomic costs of having less water, but does not change the amount of fallowed land by much. The study said the Valley is still looking to cut about half a million acres of agricultural land out of irrigated production. Escriva-Bou said the Valley does have a lot of options when it comes to the fallowed land, and they are trying to create a plan for the future before being blindsided. He said some of the alternative potential uses that they are looking into are solar fields, ecosystem habitats, recharge basins are other things that could bring synergies instead of increased damage. 

“Let’s try to avoid the potential problems and try to bring potential alternative uses that could mitigate not only the problems, but also to provide economic incentives,” Escriva-Bou said.

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