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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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The Votes Cast, a Fat Bear is Crowned in Alaska. Every year, the Katmai National Park and Preserve holds Fat Bear Week, an online competition that allows individuals to vote on large bears, in an effort to raise awareness about the park’s wildlife. This year’s champion? Bear 747 (named in reference to the Boeing 747), weighing in at more than 1,400 pounds. The New York Times

Articles Worth Reading: October 6, 2020

The Royal Bank of Canada is Withholding Financing for Drilling in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, citing its “particular ecological and social significance and vulnerability.” This policy change may be part of a paradigm shift for major financial institutions, which finance and drive the majority of oil and gas development. The bank’s pledge comes after the U.S. Department of the Interior’s recent decision to open up the refuge for development. RBC joins five major U.S.-based banks in this decision to not finance development in the ANWR, including Goldman Sachs, Wells Fargo, and J.P. Morgan Chase. The Narwhal

A Devastating Fire Season Just Keeps Going: to date, California wildfires have consumed four million acres as 8,200 fires in August killed 31 people and destroyed more than 8,400 buildings. Burning through 100,000 acres, the August complex fire in Mendocino County is the largest on record, “at nearly five times the size of New York City.” It is only 54 percent contained by weary fire fighters. Increasing temperatures exacerbate the fires’ intensity; their effects are being experienced at greater distances, as hazardous air quality conditions extend across the continent. The Guardian

An in-depth video shows the severity of California’s fires and what to worry about now, like mudslides. San Jose Mercury News

Canadian Indigenous Groups Looking to Invest in the Keystone XL Oil Pipeline which Indigenous groups in the United States oppose. Four First Nations groups in Alberta and one in Saskatchewan are pursuing an equity interest in the pipeline, signing a memorandum between the pipeline developer, TC Energy, and Natural Law Energy, which represents the Three Maskwacis Nations and the Saddle Lake Cree Nation, in Alberta, and the Nekaneet First Nation in Saskatchewan. The idea is to create a long-term partnership. Neither party explicitly commented on the Indigenous-activist led resistance movement to the pipeline. Members of the Lakota Nation and the Fort Peck Assiniboine Sioux who led a delegation to the U.S.-Canadian border for an anti-pipeline prayer ceremony in mid-summer, described a Native employee of TC Energy “a traitor.” Kallanish Energy Billings Gazette

Snake River Dams Not Going Anywhere After Federal Decision to Release More Water for as much as 16 hours daily to help stabilize the population of fish, particularly Chinook salmon, that have suffered serious decline in the entire Columbia River watershed. The plan adopted by three federal agencies won praise from groups representing farmers and loggers, but skepticism from conservationists and dismissal from the Nez Perce tribe. Boise State Public Radio

Solar Energy Expansion Is in Overdrive in West Texas; the state has 17 solar facilities, including 13 with capacities of at least 100 megawatts of power. With intense sun and large swaths of empty land where major solar farms can spread out, West Texas has long been ideal for solar development. Texas’ free-market approach and loose regulations encourage all big electricity projects, including solar. The cost of developing solar farms has dropped about 40 percent in Texas in the last five years, according to an industry association. Texas Observer

Clam Gardens, Revived on the Beaches of British Columbia, are expanding crustacean habitat using an age-old Native practice of flattening the shoreline with small rock walls and tilling the sand to improve aeration. Using these methods and removing predators like the sea star allows the Wsáneć, Hul’q’umi’num, and Stz’uminus First Nations to expand the habitat for butter, littleneck, and horse clams, plus crabs, chitons, seaweeds, and other useful species. Generations of Native land stewards continued this practice even when overrun by colonial settlers who passed laws criminalizing the work. The Guardian

Articles Worth Reading: September 29, 2020

Knowing How to Fight the Megafires of Climate Change is the daunting task facing firefighters today. Wildfires are behaving in unprecedented ways and the traditional ways to fight them are proving inadequate. The Yellowstone Fire of 1988 was a harbinger of what is now an annual series of catastrophes. Hotter, drier weather increases the scale, power, and frequency of wildfires, which spawn tornadoes and thunderstorms. Once unheard-of Arctic fires produce large volumes of greenhouse gases; every degree Celsius of temperature rise increases lightning activity by 12 percent. Yale Environment 360

Recycling Helps Rid Us of Forever Plastics? No, Say Some Experts. Much recycled plastic, from yogurt containers to bags and “clamshells,” heads not for a new life but landfills. One former executive told a PBS Frontline investigation that selling the idea of recycling meant they could sell plastic. While all used plastic can be repurposed, it’s expensive to pick it up, sort it, and melt it down. KQED

New Mexico Resists a New License for Nuclear Waste Storage Facility. A New Jersey company wants a 40-year license to build a multi-billion-dollar complex near Carlsbad. It would store up to 8,680 metric tons of uranium, packed into 500 canisters. Future expansion could allow up to 10,000 canisters of spent fuel from nuclear plants around the country. State officials told Nuclear Regulatory Commission that the firm’s analysis is incomplete, the site is geologically unsuitable and environmental justice issues are being ignored. Associated Press

A 37-Year-Old Public Trust Doctrine to Preserve Inland Lakes just got a new look from the Nevada Supreme Court. In the precedent-setting 1983 Mono Lake case, the California Supreme Court ruled that the public trust interest in the water, fish and wildlife of the lake meant diversion of the lake’s tributaries must be controlled. Nevada’s Supreme Court just took a different tack, saying the state could not reshuffle existing rights to the Walker River to protect the receding Walker Lake. Ninth Circuit federal appeals judges had send sent the case to the Nevada court; it’s now headed back to federal court. Las Vegas Sun Nevada Independent

Local Control Was the Hallmark of California’s Groundwater Law, but a new study shows the local plans tend to favor large agribusiness over small farmers. Only about 12 percent of 260 new groundwater sustainability agencies include representatives from tribal groups or small farms not already affiliated with local irrigation districts. Estuary

After Four Decades of Combat Over the Efforts to Drill for Oil Under the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge Appear Headed for Success. With the lives and livelihoods of the Indigenous groups of the region at issue, a month ago, the Interior Department cleared the way for bidding on drilling rights. But the voices of the Iñupiat people — some of whom welcome the chance to earn revenue from lands that were once theirs — and the Gwich’in people, for whom the caribou of the region are both a nutrition and cultural linchpin — are seldom heard. A collaboration with of the The Threshold podcast, and the Center for Investigative Reporting. Reveal

Aquariums are Accustomed to Showing the Ocean’s Shallows, Not Its Depths. Now, around the world, they are figuring out how to display the mysterious and remarkable animals of the deep sea. Two years hence, California’s Monterey Bay aquarium hopes to create the first large-scale exhibition of deep sea life and the impact that warming and seabed mining may have on the unseen world. The New York Times

Articles Worth Reading: September 23, 2020

Establishing a New Indigenous Wildfire Task Force is the goal of a California State Senate candidate, Jackie Fielder. As “fire season” becomes increasingly intense, the need for effective fire management practices increases, and Indigenous groups’ knowledge becomes a beacon for forest managers.. Fielder’s plan is based on the Karuk Climate Adaptation Plan, which shows how controlled burns help prevent destructive wildfires. SF Weekly

Recent Fires Destroyed Much of Washington State’s Crucial Sage Grouse Habitat An expert on the birds said that the state’s population of less than 1,000 grouse may have been cut in half as fires burned more than 600,000 acres of forest and sagebrush rangeland this year. Overall, scientists have issued a report showing that grouse populations in nine states have declined 44 percent in five years. Mongabay

Los Angeles Is Working to Turn Recycled Plastic into Pavement and Parking Lots. Three years ago, when China announced it would take no more recycling waste, the federal Energy Department started looking for ways to dispose of the excess piling up in American dumps. The city is working on a project to create asphalt containing recycled plastic and has experimented with the asphalt mix on parking lots and small roads. It is now planning to use it on a major street near Walt Disney Concert Hall. E&E News

The Southwest Is Suffering a Major Bird Die-Off, as thousands of migratory birds have been found dead in recent weeks. The cause of this mass die-off remains unknown, but some theorize that raging western wildfires forced many birds to reroute their migrations, and that exceptionally dry conditions have greatly reduced the presence of insects, birds’ main source of food. Large avian mortality during migration is rare and few instances have been as large as this one. High Country News

Microsoft Has Launched the Second Phase of an Underwater Data Center Experiment , extending work done off the West Coast in 2015 to explore the feasibility of submarine computing. Their Natick Project intended to explore underwater data centers’ potential economic and environmental advantages relative to those on dry land. The findings: a sealed container on the ocean floor could improve overall reliability, given that oxygen and humidity corrode terrestrial centers as they do other modern infrastructure. The team also hopes that offshore data centers could support faster information retrieval over interconnected networks. CMSWire

A “Language Keepers” Podcast Illuminates the Struggle to Keep Indigenous Languages Alive in California. Two centuries ago, as many as 90 languages and 300 dialects were spoken in California. Today only half this number remain. This series explores the current state of four Indigenous languages that are among the most threatened in the world: Tolowa Dee-ni’, Karuk, Wukchumni, and Kawaiisu. It features stories of families and communities across California working to revitalize their Native languages and cultures. Emergence Magazine

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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Nov 17 2020 | Center News
Lane Center associate director moves to Stanford's Office of Community Engagement.
Nov 13 2020 | Center News, Happenings, Research Notes
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