Guest Column: The Fate of Agriculture in the San Joaquin Valley

By Dr. Edward T. Henry, DVM (retired)

California’s Sustainable Groundwater Management Act of 2014 (SGMA) is now “the law of the land (state)” and as such there will be restricted agricultural groundwater (GW) pumping throughout the San Joaquin Valley (SJV) which is comprised of 8 counties from San Joaquin County in the northern end to Kern County in the southern end. Those 8 counties have a combined irrigated acreage of 5 million acres of farmland. Those acres are irrigated with a combination of GW and surface water (SW) from Sierra Nevada lakes, reservoirs, rivers, canals, and the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta (Delta). 

It’s generally accepted that it takes about 3¼ to 3½ acre-feet (AF) of water per acre of farmland (from a combination of GW and SW) in a growing season to produce food and fiber in the SJV. (NOTE: An AF is approximately 326,000 gallons which is enough water to cover a football field from goal line to goal line at a depth of one foot.) 

Depending on each Groundwater Sustainability Agency (GSA) in the SJV, the annual allowable amount of GW pumping could range from as little as 0.20 AF/acre to as much as 1½ AF/acre—the remainder or balance of the needed irrigation water to meet the crop demands of 3¼ to 3½ AF/acre would have to be made up from SW, if it’s available. If not, then farmland will have to be fallowed/retired—more on that below. 

In the pre-SGMA era there were no restrictions on GW pumping, and if there wasn’t enough SW to meet the crop demands, then the balance would be made up with unrestricted GW pumping. In some cases, particularly during the drought years, almost 100% of the water demand came from GW—those days are now gone forever with SGMA’s GW pumping restrictions. That historical unrestricted GW pumping, often referred to as GW overdraft, caused a variety of “Undesirable Results” [as listed in SGMA] in the SJV such as chronic lowering of GW levels, significant sinking of the land (subsidence), degradation of GW quality and quantity, loss of GW storage capacity in a number of valley aquifers, etc. SGMA has given GSAs until 2040 to stabilize their GW levels and stop the overdraft which has been causing those “Undesirable Results”. 

The Friant Water Authority (FWA— commissioned Dr. David Sunding of UC Berkeley to do a socio-economic analysis study on the impacts of SGMA to the SJV. His 17-page report, Blueprint Economic Impact Analysis: Phase One Results, (—click on the Download Report button to view Dr. Sunding’s report), is now public and a must read, and it is shocking—1 million acres (20% of the 5 million acres) could potentially be fallowed/retired over the next 10-15 years in the SJV. Dr. Sunding chose to look at the worst-case scenarios to include reduced south-of-the-Delta (SOD) SW deliveries along with SGMA’s mandate to reduce GW pumping. There’s an old adage which says, “GW pumping is inversely proportional to SW deliveries”—meaning the more SW available the less dependency on GW—GW pumping will still be permitted but in restricted amounts going forward. There’s a definite water imbalance in the SJV and the solution is to either (1) increase the SW supplies available to the SJV or (2) permanently fallow/retire farmland.

On April 29, 2019, of last year Governor Newsom signed Executive Order N-19-10 which put in motion what is called the California Water Resiliency Portfolio (WRP). There are a number of water experts in the SJV who wanted to make sure the SJV had a voice in his WRP, and thus developed the Water Blueprint for the SJV (Blueprint— which can best be described as a water resiliency portfolio for the SJV. (Dr. Sunding’s bleak socio-economic report cited above is supposed to be inserted into the Blueprint.) 

Also in 2019 new Biological Opinions (BiOps) were developed which changed the dynamics of water in the Delta, and would be very positive for increasing SW deliveries SOD and would very much aid in the implementation of the Blueprint. Initially it appeared the Governor was interested in including the Blueprint in his WRP. But on Thursday, February 19th, the Governor filed a lawsuit against the Federal Government regarding the adoption of those new BiOps. The FWA has emphasized a number of times in recent public meetings that the new BiOps for the Delta are critical for successful implementation of the Blueprint. The FWA is now quite concerned that if the new BioOps are rejected due to this lawsuit, the Blueprint could be in jeopardy. 

On the positive side it is hoped the Blueprint with the inclusion of Dr. Sunding’s report will be enough additional leverage to persuade the Governor to include it in his WRP due to the “socio-economic disaster” that could potentially ensue, particularly with regards to disadvantage communities (DACs) in the SJV. Ultimately the Blueprint will increase SOD SW into the SJV for beneficial uses—i.e. agriculture, environment and habitat, communities, DACs, GW recharge, water projects, etc. Also the implementation of the new BiOps will substantially ensure success of the Blueprint.

On the negative side from the SJV’s perspective, since the new BiOps are critical for successful implementation of the Blueprint, should there be a return to the old BioOps of 2008-2009, then the Blueprint could possibly die. And also the Governor could decide not to include this Blueprint in his WRP.

To me retiring/fallowing 1 million acres of irrigated farmland in the SJV [as predicted by Dr. Sunding] has the equivalency of a “natural disaster” such as a magnitude 8.0 earthquake in the Bay Area or Southern California, or another massive California wildfire, or flooding, or a tsunami, etc. Certainly there won’t be the property damage, personal injuries and deaths like any of those natural disasters, but the long-term collateral damage of SGMA with mandatory GW pumping restrictions and the potential failure of the new BiOps will be a “socio-economic disaster” in the making with the resultant trickle-down through the SJV’s economy (and eventually the state, and possibly the nation) affecting towns, DACs, schools, property taxes, sales taxes, etc.—and then what about the significant “out migration” of small businesses do to lack of patronage and the unemployed? 

The one luxury (perhaps a poor word choice) we have, beginning right now with essentially front row seats given Dr. Sunding’s prediction, is that we will be able to watch this disaster start to unfold in “slow motion” (unlike an earthquake which is immediate) over the next 10-15 years. I fully expect to start seeing some early effects within the next 2-4 years with some significant ag land retirement particularly if we get back into drought conditions which it’s looking like right now. 

Supposedly the Blueprint will mitigate some of that land fallowing and the new BiOps are the lynch pin to successful implementation of that Blueprint but if they’re remanded, then the Blueprint is probably doomed and the full weight of Dr. Sunding’s projections will likely come to bear on the SJV.  

A major question I have is, “Will both the state and federal governments treat this with all the seriousness of a natural disaster?” Are there any preparations and planning being addressed now by OES/FEMA? Or is this an “event” that we’ll try to adapt to as needed as we get deeper and deeper into that “disaster”? 

Just some food for thought on this topic, and my apologizes but right now I see the glass 3/4 empty rather than 1/2 full. 

Pray for rain and snow—it’s not too late.

This guest column is not a news article but the opinion of the writer and does not reflect the views of The Sun-Gazette newspaper.

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