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September 14, 2016


Choices made as a Farmer and a Father, Josephine Devanbu, ’16 Painting

by jdevanbu

After two years getting by on just groundwater, 2016 finally brought Nate Ray some surface water. Ray, who manages the feed growing operation at DeJager Dairy, remembers feeling palpably lighter when he heard that the Chowchilla water district had surface water to allocate. Without surface water, he’d been cornered into pumping more water than his wells could take. Now he’d finally be able to give the aquifer a break.

But the surface water came with a catch. In years past, surface water offered a respite from the high electricity cost of pumping. This year, the cost of surface water exceeded that of pumping. Choosing to use the surface water would come at a financial loss.

“This was a choice we had to make as farmers, ranchers, owners, land stewards.” Ray said.

Ray also had to make the choice as a father. Buy the surface water and he’d cut into profit margins, but keep pumping and he’d further jeopardizes his children’s access to the safety net groundwater has offered his generation.

Ray is one of a dozen growers I’ve interviewed as a Maharam Fellow this summer. In these conversations, I’ve sought  out growers’ emotional experience of groundwater use, past, present and particularly looking forward to the future as California implements its first statewide groundwater regulation.To put the growers’ and ranchers’ stories into context, I’ve also interviewed a dozen scientists, regulators, industry representatives and environmental justice advocates.

In my first blog post, I wrote about my own experience entering this technically complex, politically contentious arena, and my qualms about doing justice to the stories I’ve heard. In this post, I take a stab at a lay of the land.

During times of drought in California, groundwater turns from a crutch into a lifeline, swelling from 40% of the state’s total consumption to as much as 60%. Today, after five years of too little rain, many critical basins are in overdraft–meaning that the rate of pumping exceeds the rate of replenishment–and thousands of agricultural and domestic wells have gone dry.

Groundwater invisibility and the drawn out pace of its depletion make it difficult to keep in the public attention. Powerful lobbying efforts against regulation from agricultural interest groups further deterred legislature from addressing the issue.

But the duration of the current drought has exposed the degree of our reliance and brought groundwater to a greater public stage. Lay people started to hear about it. Scientists who had been working on the issue for years in relative anonymity, started getting an audience. Growers like Ray weighed financial loss against further imperiling aquifers.

After running through a few budgets, Ray decided to take the surface water and bear the losses. He knows some of his neighbors made the opposite choice. Driving around the area, he sees their pumps running.

A wet five year old in navy swim trunks wanders into Ray’s office. Holden climbs onto Ray’s lap and leans his head against his dad’s chest.

“These aquifers that are underneath us, they don’t have property boundaries” Ray said. He shifts Holden’s weight, exposes a damp spot on his shirt from the child’s hair. “If we don’t somehow regulate ourselves, monitor ourselves, then we’re gonna pump ourselves dry and there won’t be nothing left for the next generation.”

California’s groundwater reckoning has led to a rethinking of one of the state’s most fiercely guarded assumptions about water ownership: that groundwater belongs to whomever owns the land above it.

The Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA), signed by Jerry Brown in 2014, is the first statewide law attempting to monitor and manage groundwater as the interconnect system it is. The legislation calls for the formation of regional Groundwater Sustainability Agencies (GSAs) agencies across the state. Each will have to devise and implement plans to monitor and manage groundwater withdrawals in a way that achieves sustainability within a quarter century.   With the June 2017 deadline to form GSAs nearly here; the most profound shift in California water rights in a century is underway.

A huge part of the burden will be on growers. Not only will they be the ones organizing the GSAs in many cases, they must also adjust to a new relationship to groundwater.  Formerly treated as private property, this crucial resource is now recast as common pool resource that the government has the right to tell them how to handle. This is a profound transition and it would be helpful to have public understanding and support.

But as the public comes to understand the magnitude of the state’s groundwater problem, those resisting regulation have increasingly come under fire. From an urban perch, it’s hard to understand why growers would want their representatives fighting groundwater regulation. Such a stand seems shortsighted at best and selfish at worst. Groundwater may have emerged from obscurity, but the choices facing agricultural groundwater users have remained largely invisible.

Ray is conflicted about SGMA. “As bad as you want to look at it from a land owner’s rights standpoint, there is some good to it” he said. “Right now it’s about 50-60% of growers who are really worried. When SGMA kicks in it will be 100%.”

What scares Ray is the way regulations will interact with what he perceives to be the ever shrinking share of surface water allocated to farmers. “Every year they take more and more water for environmental uses,” Ray said. “If you’re going to take away our surface water and our groundwater, then we don’t have a means to make a living.”


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