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Small Farmers Wait for California’s Groundwater Hammer to Fall

Madison Pobis
Jan 22 2020

Farmers, large and small, are beginning to grapple with what the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act means for them. One by one, local sustainability plans are starting to go public. Many farmers expect to see cutbacks on pumping once the program is fully implemented in 2040.

Randy Fiorini walking in his walnut orchard

Randy Fiorini in his Merced County walnut orchard. Five years ago, the Fiorini home’s groundwater well ran dry. With groundwater limits likely to be on the way, he wonders if he’ll be able to continue to rely on a critical backstop during droughts.   Madison Pobis


By Madison Pobis

A black lab trots dutifully behind as Randy Fiorini proudly points out the drip irrigation lines running along the base of his walnut trees. The orchards sit on land first planted in 1907 when his grandfather established Fiorini Ranch a few miles outside of Delhi, California after relocating from Redondo Beach. A cement ditch carrying water from the Don Pedro Reservoir about 50 miles away runs alongside peach, almond, and walnut trees.

Back when the ranch was irrigated by flooding its fields, Fiorini would splash around with his childhood friend, Scott Severson, in the huge pools under the shade of the trees. Like Fiorini, Severson grew up to farm his family’s ranch nearby in Merced County.

Like most parts of the Central Valley, the Fiorini and Severson ranches in the Turlock Irrigation District used surface water when it was available, and pumped groundwater when it wasn’t. Two decades ago, Fiorini decided to use water more efficiently and switched from flooding to drip irrigation on his peach trees, tripling the production of cling peaches. His overall water use didn’t fall, and the years of reliance on groundwater took its toll. Five years ago, in the middle of a crippling drought, Fiorini’s domestic well pump no longer reached the shrinking groundwater aquifer.


Video Profile: Randy Fiorini, Third Generation Grower

“You don’t have enough water and you lose those trees, you’re gonna be sideways with the bank in a hurry.”

Fiorini switched from flooding to drip irrigation on his peach trees, tripling production but continuing his orchards’ reliance on groundwater.

Video: Madison Pobis/Bill Lane Center for the American West

His land is part of roughly five million irrigated acres in the San Joaquin Valley distributed over about 20,000 farms. As Fiorini’s domestic well ran dry, underscoring the speed at which this crucial resource was disappearing, the California legislature took action to end more than a century of freewheeling, unregulated groundwater use. In 2014, it approved the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act. Basin by basin, local areas had to create new agencies — called groundwater sustainability agencies, or GSAs — to manage the groundwater.

Now farmers, large and small, are beginning to grapple with what this means for them and their choice of crops. Many expect to see cutbacks on pumping once the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA) is fully implemented.

The groundwater basin underneath the ranches of Fiorini and Severson in Delhi is one of 48 in the state that is considered “high priority.” Its Groundwater Sustainability Agency, the West Turlock Subbasin GSA in Merced County, must submit plans by January 2022 that will bring it into a sustainable balance in two decades.


Map of California groundwater basins showing prioritization.

Map of California groundwater basins showing state prioritization levels. Click for interactive map.   Geoff McGhee/Bill Lane Center for the American West

“Growers are starting to take notice,” said Scott Severson. “Some adapt much faster than others... And there’s a certain portion that will dig in and wait until the very end until they’re mandated what to do, and you know scream and yell about it the whole way.”

Chart: Groundwater use in wet vs dry years

Some farmers will find out their new limits soon. The state Department of Water Resources is already reviewing three sustainability plans. The sustainability agencies with authority over Al Rossini’s scattered farmland are responsible for two of California’s 21 critically overdrafted basins. Like Fiorini and Severson, Rossini’s family has farmed about 1,000 acres for generations. The Rossini acres are in both Merced and Stanislaus Counties; the relevant GSAs must submit their plans to the state at the end of this month.

What are farmers like these doing? Waiting. Most want their new GSAs to spell out precise limitations before hitting the brakes on production.

When they are told of the actual groundwater cutback requirements, they will face a reckoning. The Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) estimates that since 2003 the San Joaquin Valley has overdrafted an average of 2.4 million acre-feet of groundwater every year. (An acre-foot is about 326,000 gallons, or enough to supply water to two homes for a year.) Bringing California’s groundwater supplies into balance will require huge sacrifices from growers — some may see cutbacks as high as 50 percent on groundwater pumping. Farmers must also rethink which crops are worth keeping and how many acres can be sustained with limited water supplies.

Even under ideal conditions, the PPIC estimates that a minimum of 535,000 acres will need to stop producing crops by 2040, with landowners forfeiting billions of dollars in revenue. If new water supplies can’t be generated or redistributed, that number might be as high as 780,000 acres, according to Jelena Jezdimirovic, a research associate at the PPIC. “We kind of don’t take these numbers to be the absolute truth of what will happen,” she said, “but we want to show that, depending on how people want to implement this law, there is potential for better outcomes.”

Jezdimirovic said that it’s not all that surprising that most basins haven’t settled yet on firm allocation limits. Yet inevitably, land will come out of production and landowners will have to decide how — and how much — to fallow. The decisions of smaller family farmers may be wrenching, and they own a substantial portion of the land affected. In a 2017 PPIC report Jezdimirovic wrote that in the Central Valley, “farms with less than 500 acres of irrigated cropland account for a quarter of total irrigated acreage.”

A few farmers have acted already. Sarah Woolf Clark, a grower in the Westlands Water District, said her family operations had to cut production in 2009, when their surface water allocation dropped to zero. They reduced staff and eliminated equipment to scale back on two thirds of their property. They haven’t returned to full capacity, and are rotating lower-value row crops, diverting more water to their higher-value almonds and pistachios, and slowly divesting themselves of water-stressed areas.


Micro irrigation watering an almond orchard in Livingston, California in 2015. Most growers have already invested in more efficient methods of irrigation like these to increase yields

Micro irrigation watering an almond orchard in Livingston, California in 2015. Most growers have already invested in more efficient methods of irrigation like these to increase yields.   Lance Cheung/USDA via Flickr


Many farmers must face the consequences of deciding to shift to permanent crops. Once planted, grapevines or nut trees must be watered, drought or no. The increasing dominance of high-value perennial crops — which now represent 45 percent of the production in the southern Central Valley, PPIC reports — makes it harder for San Joaquin Valley growers to plan for a future with less groundwater.

Field crops like alfalfa, corn, and grains return between $200 and $600 per acre-foot of water used. The profits are low, but the crops can be more easily rotated or those fields fallowed. But for growers like Rossini, whose vineyards produce grapes for Trader Joe’s popular “two-buck Chuck” wine, permanent crops can bring in as much as $2000 per acre-foot of water. How much of this harvest can continue once the cutbacks begin?

 

Video Profile: Al Rossini, Third Generation Grower

“Our company has spent over $3 million in water wells and development of irrigation systems to be able to farm our crops with the least amount of water possible.”

Al Rossini is a farmer with about 1,000 acres in Merced and Stanislaus Counties.

Video: Madison Pobis/Bill Lane Center for the American West

Most growers have already invested in more efficient methods of irrigation like drip lines and micro-sprinklers to increase yields. However, the PPIC notes that these methods can actually increase net water use as farmers intensify production on existing acreage.

Even in the West Turlock Subbasin, where overdraft isn’t yet critical, Scott Severson worries that small family growers will find it hard to resist the buyouts offered as corporate operations in critically stressed areas move to places where cutbacks may be more manageable. “Where is that point where small family farm or even you know, my kids or grandkids someday, it becomes to the point where they literally are offered enough money to get out.”

 

Central Valley farmland north of Sacramento

Central Valley farmland north of Sacramento.   Bithead via Flickr


Could Farming Reductions Open an Opportunity for Environmental Conservation?

What to grow and where to grow it are the first questions. More follow: what to do with land you leave empty? Woolf Clark believes SGMA offers an opportunity to collaborate with the environmental community. As president of Water Wise, a consulting firm, she works with farmers to manage water projects and explain farmers’ positions to environmental experts. “SGMA has created this world that, like it or not, we’re all impacted by the regulations that are put forth,” she said.

The PPIC estimates that roughly 15 percent of the estimated 535,000 acres of land coming out of production could be used for habitat restoration. But there is hesitation about how much turning cropland into regions for species conservation can realistically help growers. Most of the land the state has acquired for this purpose was never farmed.

Erin Tennant, an environmental scientist with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife’s lands program, studies threatened and endangered species in desert areas that overlap with much of the Central Valley. Animals like the blunt-nosed leopard lizard, kit fox, and kangaroo rat thrive in dry upland habitats.

Top-priority areas usually border existing conservation easements, and even then, must have the right elements — from soil type to plant arrangements to food — for a species to return. “The easiest way to retire land is to connect to already conserved land,” said Tennant, “and hope that the species on the conserved land could simply move…”

Even if a parcel is perfectly positioned in a corridor with all the habitat boxes ticked, Tennant worries that economic returns will come too slowly for landowners losing the profits from farming. So they may be less likely to find conservation easements appealing. Also, the money farmers can earn is withheld until the state has evidence that target species are using it.

Environmentalists approached Al Rossini about the potential for tiger salamander habitat recovery on his land, but he wasn’t confident that the projects would succeed. Still, he thinks those partnerships can be productive in other ways. “The people that you don’t understand and you don’t quite get along with,” he said, “the best place for that person is next to you.”

For now, the process of converting active agricultural land for conservation is largely theoretical. “We’re purely in a mode of sit back and wait and see what happens,” Tennant said.

 

Video Profile: Scott Severson, Third Generation Grower

“We can all talk about what we think might happen, but nobody really knows for sure.”

Video: Madison Pobis/Bill Lane Center for the American West


Green Energy Could Bloom on Abandoned Farmland

What about wind and solar farms? Appealing in theory, but the PPIC report estimated such conversion, at best, would affect nine percent of the 535,000 dewatered acres. “There’ll be far more farm ground taken out in the next 20 years than the demand for solar,” said Jason Selvidge, a fifth generation grower with operations in the Rosedale-Rio Bravo and Semitropic water districts. Selvidge has consulted with both habitat-restoration groups and solar companies about potentially leasing land.

For the most part, he will adjust to new limitations by converting to higher value crops and dropping water-intensive, low-value crops like corn for dairy cattle. He anticipates that 15 to 20 percent of the current acreage in his operations could come out of production. But for many growers fully invested in permanent high-value crops, leaving orchards without water isn’t a viable option. “[If] you don’t have enough water and you lose those trees, you’re gonna be sideways with the bank in a hurry,” said Randy Fiorini.

Decreasing demand on groundwater is just one lever that can be used to respond to SGMA. Increasing the supply by refilling groundwater basins — the technical term is “recharging” — will play an important role in hitting the PPIC’s estimate of 535,000 fallowed acres.

 

Where to Find Additional Water Supplies? Banking Water Underground Could be a Start

The Rosedale-Rio Bravo water storage district, whose sandy soils are perfect for recharging water, holds water in underground banks and can have water districts or farmers “deposit” water in the water-bank accounts — or purchase credits for future water use — when prices are cheap, then store them until they need to pump from a well during a dry year.

The ability to lease land and trade water rights within local regions, and eventually between water districts, will enable farmers with permanent crops to be assured they will have the water they need to continue producing high-value, thirsty crops. Woolf Clark said systems like this are a good reason to avoid blanket solutions. Areas that can support recharge and groundwater storage shouldn’t necessarily adhere to strict water conservation practices.

Conservation, new renewable energy sites and water banking and trading are likely to expand around the Central Valley as cutbacks take hold.

Perhaps one of the most unsettling aspects of preparing for SGMA is trying to anticipate the unintended consequences. “One of the big problems is the potential for disease and pests,” Fiorini said. “If you’ve got an orchard [taken out of production] sitting next to an orchard that’s still in production, you’re making significant problems for the guy next to you who’s trying to keep going.” The law makes local agencies responsible for implementing the plans and managing groundwater in the decades to come, but it’s unclear who will deal with such issues.

Jezdimirovic of PPIC has noticed that time itself is an essential — and sparse — resource for small farmers planning ahead for SGMA. “Large farmers have practically dedicated staff that can participate in the SGMA process,” she said. Many immigrant farmers with small acreage in a single basin may not even be fully aware of the law until they are handed a mandate on groundwater pumping restriction.

The plans being submitted for critically overdrafted basins this month are just a baby step toward the decades-long process of implementing SGMA in California. “Time after time, and it’s been going on for a while but you see farms sold to the big corporations, the big farms, the investment groups,” said Jason Selvidge. “It’s just kind of one more straw on the camel’s back.” As small family growers look toward the future, they hope that groundwater sustainability doesn’t come at the cost of generational farming traditions.

“I live this business with a passion and I got four sons...and they’re involved in agriculture one way or the other,” said Rossini. “It’s a way of life and a heritage that you stay with.”

 

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Edited by Felicity Barringer and Geoff McGhee.

 

 

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Researchers Consider Environmental Impacts of the Border Wall in Southern Arizona, which ecologists say threatens wildlife and poses greater risks of damage from flash floods. Indigenous communities mourn the damage to sacred lands, which they say cannot be undone by removing the wall. The Biden administration must now decide whether halting construction is enough, or whether further action is necessary to improve conservation outlooks and land management practices at the border. Arizona Republic

East Palo Alto Residents Collaborate With Scientists and City Government to Fight Sea Level Rise in this multimedia feature from the Pulitzer Center’s Connected Coastlines Initiative. Although East Palo Alto’s budget is hundreds of times smaller than San Francisco’s, their plans to mitigate the threat of sea level rise are well ahead of much of the Bay Area. Even so, a historical legacy of disinvestment, racial segregation, and regional disparities could undermine East Palo Alto’s strategies, which include replacing old levees and accounting for infrastructure upgrades to sanitation systems and electrical towers. Experts say a coordinated effort will be necessary to keep the entire Bay safe from catastrophic flooding. KQED

Native Fishermen Compete With Industrial Trawlers For Declining Halibut Populations off the coast of Alaska, where warming temperatures wreak havoc on Bering Sea ecosystems. Crab, pollock, salmon and halibut numbers are all shrinking, but industrial fishermen don’t feel the pressure; even as they target lower-value species, they waste millions of more expensive fish like halibut as bycatch. Now, fishery managers are discussing new limits that would reduce waste and even the playing field for Native fishermen, but industrial operations are fighting the new restrictions, saying it’s unrealistic to reduce bycatch in practice. National Geographic

Anglers On The Los Angeles River Face A Tenuous Future as the city plans to revitalize the waterway with a new system of parks and cultural centers. Many destitute Angelenos rely on the river for food, shelter and refuge; the city will likely remove homeless encampments as part of their new investments. Homeless advocates worry that the new parks will create a wave of “green gentrification” that leaves out already marginalized communities. High Country News

Eastern Washington Is Investing In Clean Hydrogen Energy Infrastructure amidst debate over the alternative fuel’s viability. Supporters believe producing combustible hydrogen could help eliminate fossil fuels used by heavy emitters like the construction and aviation industries, but the technology is costly. However, the Pacific Northwest has an advantageous surplus of clean power from wind and solar farms, which engineers say makes the region an optimal place to test a pilot program. Inside Climate News

Wind Turbine Techs Brave Heights in this photo feature on blade technicians who climb and belay on the enormous fiberglass structures to perform maintenance. Patagonia

Articles Worth Reading: April 12, 2021

Interior Secretary Deb Haaland Visited Bears Ears as crowds of tourists and looters frustrate advocates seeking to restore the original scope of the national monument. Former President Trump shrank the areas of monuments at Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante in 2017, reversing Obama-era protections. Haaland must decide whether to recommend that Biden restore the previous boundaries. Indigenous groups want to see the monument expanded, while Republican politicians, ranchers and miners in Utah resist increased federal protections. Washington Post

Las Vegas Pushing to Become First City to Ban Ornamental Grass. This desert gambling metropolis, whose utility has for nearly two decades rewarded homeowners for replacing grass with dry landscaping – xeriscaping – is planning to go one step further. The utility is asking Nevada state legislators to outlaw about 40 percent of the remaining greensward, arguing that there are almost eight square miles of grass in medians or office parks that no one walks on. Last year was among the driest in the region’s history; for a record 240 days, there was no measurable rainfall. About 90 percent of southern Nevada's water comes from the Colorado River, whose reservoirs at Lake Mead and Lake Powell are near record lows. Associated Press

What’s In Toxic Wildfire Smoke? To find answers, scientists chase storms and rig cargo planes to become flying laboratories. Chemists, immunologists, and other experts have begun using air and ash samples from recent catastrophic fire seasons to unravel the human health impacts of wildfire emissions, though they say fully understanding the long-term effects may take years. National Geographic

Three Interest Groups Face Off In a Scramble Over Temperate Rainforests on the southwest corner of Vancouver Island. A century of logging has depleted about 80 percent of the old-growth trees on the island in British Columbia. An anti-logging group is blockading an area near Fairy Creek. But the Pacheedat First Nation, which gets provincial compensation in exchange for allowing logging in their territory, has not agreed to the blockade, though some tribal members sympathize. Legal action is pending. The Tyee

A New Wildlife Refuge In Albuquerque will become the first urban wildlife refuge in the Southwest, officially opening this fall. The Valle de Oro National Wildlife Refuge promises more open space for historically disenfranchised Chicano communities. The new amenities are expected to raise property values, opening the town to potential gentrification, cultural change and excess tourism. Equitable representation for community members in the preserve will be key to grounding the refuge in the values of environmental justice, the refuge’s supporters say. High Country News

Cattle Ranchers Seek Control of Free-Roaming Tule Elk In Point Reyes, prompting opposition from conservationists. When Congress designed the national seashore as public land not only for nature preservation but also for farmers’ “cultural heritage,” it sowed the seeds of repeated conflicts. In the late 19th century, human development nearly drove the elk extinct. Though herds were reintroduced in the 1960s, the species returned to a landscape shaped by cattle. Now, it’s unclear who will control the future of that landscape. Biographic

‘Glamping’ Project In Joshua Tree Puts Sustainable Development To The Test as Airstream tourism company AutoCamp breaks ground on its first high desert tourism attraction. While its designers tout the eco-friendly features of the campus, residents worry that tourism could send housing prices soaring and that heavy tourist traffic could harm desert ecosystems. Desert Sun

Grasshoppers, Opera, And Ecological Collapse intertwine in this audio story of a Wyoming entomologist and his quest to find the truth about a melting glacier. Atlas Obscura

Articles Worth Reading: March 29, 2021

Latino Neighborhoods in the Southwest Are Far Hotter than Anglo neighborhoods, which have more trees and shade. The difference is as much as seven degrees in southern California, according to a new study of 20 urban areas. It shows the poorest 10 percent of neighborhoods are much hotter — four degrees Fahrenheit on average — than the wealthiest neighborhoods nearby. In particular, areas with large Latino populations bear an unequal burden. Arizona Republic

The Interior Department Rescinded a Decision That Had Eliminated Tribal Ownership of a portion of the Missouri River on the Fort Berthold Reservation and given it to the state of North Dakota. Under the Trump administration, a department statement said, Interior had agreed that North Dakota owned mineral rights despite eight decades of legal precedent to the contrary. Now the department says it needs to look more closely at the legality of ignoring the ownership rights of the Mandan, Hidatsa and the Arikara Nation. The Hill

A Republican Congressman’s Proposal to Breach Four Snake River Dams has reopened more than a century of arguments over the structures. Their construction violated treaties, flooded 14,4000 acres, crippled salmon runs and provided both a modest amount of electricity and the ability to barge inland crops to Pacific ports. Idaho Rep. Mike Simpson’s $33.5 billion plan to breach the four dams has renewed that debate. A look at the pros and cons of the proposal, and an advocate’s website visualizing the impact of dam removal. Oregonian Spokesman-Review Magic Valley Save Our Wild Salmon

What Western Governors Say They Care About is reflected in this summary – complete with a word-cloud graphic – from their association’s office’s report on recent state-of-the-state addresses. Not surprisingly, the most prevalent word is “Covid.” It’s followed by “Vaccine,” “Education,” “Infrastructure,” and “Broadband.” Western Governors Association

Covering 4,000 Miles of California Canals With Solar Panels would annually save 63 billion gallons of water from evaporating and provide 13 gigawatts of renewable power, according to a feasibility study published in the journal Nature Sustainability. That is roughly half the new capacity the state needs to meet its decarbonization goals by the year 2030. Wired

The West is Losing the War to Preserve Sage-Grouse Habitat. Human activity and fire have destroyed millions of acres of habitat for the greater sage grouse. A new federal study is deeply pessimistic about the future of the bird as it loses its essential range. Expanding, ferocious wildfires play a major part in the destruction, but so do invasive, quick-burning plants like cheatgrass. Federal and multistate efforts have helped cut the rate of destruction, but a warming climate means land managers are losing their fight. E&E Daily

Ways of Emitting Less Methane, both from leaking oil and gas wells, intentional venting of gas, and even cow burps, are getting new attention. New Mexico’s Oil and Gas Commission just adopted new rules to control oil fields’ venting and flaring of gas. And researchers at the University of California, Davis have increasing evidence that adding tropical red seaweed to cow feed can reduce bovine methane emissions by up to 82 percent. Associated Press Grist

As the Nation’s Largest Wind Farm Is Readied In the Wyoming Town of Rawlins, immense pride in the coal mining that used to power its economy remains. The New York Times “The Daily” Podcast

Larry McMurtry, Novelist of the West, Dies at 84. McMurtry’s stock in trade was de-mythologizing the West of early paperbacks and mid 20th-century television series, and offering a portrait that was more raw and more real. He did so most memorably in the 843-page novel “Lonesome Dove,” about two Texas rangers driving stolen cattle from the Rio Grande to Montana in the 1870s. He was also part of the creative force behind the movie “Brokeback Mountain.” The New York Times Dallas Morning News

Graphics & the West

Where California Grows Its Food

See the most detailed survey ever done of crops and land use in California. It covers nine million acres of land devoted to grapes, alfalfa, cotton, plums, you name it – food for people and animals all over the world. View map »

California's Changing Energy Mix

A look at the energy sources California utilities have used gives us insights into the state’s progress in decarbonizing its electricity supply. In 2015, 35% of total electricity generation (in-state generation plus imported electricity) came from zero-greenhouse-gas sources, which include solar, wind, hydropower, and nuclear. View Graphic »

U.S. Conservation Easements

Conservation easements of various kinds cover more than 22 million acres of land in the United States, according to the National Conservation Easement Database, a public-private partnership. Take a look at our interactive map of nearly every conservation easement, with details on over 130,000 sites. View map »

 

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