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A Sinking Feeling: The Problem of Depleting Groundwater Reserves  & Water Rights in the San Joaquin Valley 

A Sinking Feeling: The Problem of Depleting Groundwater Reserves  & Water Rights in the San Joaquin Valley 

At the very center of California there rests a particularly distinct landscape; beginning at the heart of the Cascade Range, sloping southward through lowlands and foothills and flowing through the extensive delta wetlands, all the way to the Tehachapi Mountains in the south. Bound by the Pacific Coast Range to the west and the great Sierra Nevada range to the east, the Central Valley spans 450 miles and contains some of the most agriculturally productive and ecologically important land in the entirety of the United States.  

Composed mostly of small towns and mid-size cities, the economic makeup of the Central Valley tends to reflect its geography: it’s dominated by agriculture and dotted with pockets of industrial centers that produce an average total of $17 billion every year, according to the USGS. With its vast irrigation and canal networks, over 35,000 farms harvest around 250 different crop varieties on more than six million acres, accounting for almost 25% of all food grown here in America. This incredible rate of production, while an impressive feat of engineering and American ambition, has a dark side that has appeared in recent years in the fight for control of the valley’s important water sources.  

With an ever-expanding population and the relentless push for continuous profit growth as a driving force, more and more land throughout the drier regions of the central valley has begun to be terraformed into farmland. Especially concentrated in the south-central and southernmost sections of the valley, extensive irrigation systems have had to be built out and fed by large, concrete lined canals shuttling in much needed water from the northern delta areas. Due to a wide array of causes (most visibly the unpredictable amount of seasonal rainfall and diversion of natural snow melt flow through what are now industrialized areas) many central valley farmers and towns have had to historically rely on the pumping of groundwater reserves to supplement the insufficient surface water. While the utilization of these wells has been a source of survival and even prosperity for many, years of habitual over-pumping (taking out more water than gets returned through both natural and human-assisted means) has led to a secondary problem with a monumental impact: the sinking of the ground above the valley’s increasingly hollowed out groundwater basins.  

This gradual sinking of vast tracts of land is widespread throughout the valley and in many places has resulted in a drop of up to 25 feet, according to the USGS. This is a process that in most of these sandy and clay topped areas is potentially irreversible; once the groundwater basin has collapsed it can’t be refilled. Despite the obviously disastrous results that come with the elimination of groundwater systems in an area, the reduced water absorption rates of these sunken places can now contribute to the worsening of floods and an increase in highly destructive dust storms. For some, this rash over-pumping seems to simply have been the result of short-sightedness or willful ignorance, while for others, it was merely a matter of survival.  

Whatever the reasoning, the draining and piecemeal destruction of groundwater networks throughout the valley has proven disastrous not only for those doing the pumping, but also for their neighbors and local ecosystems that had been reliant on proper usage of the groundwater. However, when looking further into these progressing disaster scenes, one can often find an even more irresponsible cause for the over-pumping of groundwater: the lucrative “second-hand water” market wherein some particularly profit-driven landowners sell their excess water to local agriculture and municipalities, often completely ignoring local and statewide water rights legislation prohibiting this sort of “double dipping”.  

According to Eddie Zuckerman, a 40-year veteran farmer in the delta region managing over 10,000 acres, a combination of overplanting coupled together with poor practices in many areas has been at the forefront of a lot of these problems. Zuckerman explained that groundwater and surface water collected as excess on a property thanks to “riparian rights” (an allotment of water allowed to be utilized by a property owner from sources that flow through their land) in the north of the valley is often sold and transported through federal and state canals (the California Aqueduct and Delta Mendota Canal respectively) down south to areas with less senior water rights. While this might rightfully sound harmful in itself, it’s only half of the larger problem when it comes to the practice of “double dipping.” 

“One of the problems that’s happened in California is that if I’m, say, a big grower in Kern County, I may choose to purchase and have contractual water rights, which are appropriative rights, and I’ll get a contract with the state water contractors or the bureau of reclamation, which is federal, to buy water from them. And I might buy water from them for anywhere from $20 an acre foot to $1,000 an acre foot,” Zuckerman said. “But in years of plenty, the water market is pretty low, so I can choose if I want to take my surface water and transfer it, that means selling it to another person for more money, usually a municipality, a city, county, or another water district. And in lieu of using that, I’ll pump groundwater for my own crops; so, in effect, I’m basically double dipping.”  

Essentially, the structure of water rights and the ever-present maximization of profit motive has fostered a system in which it’s potentially more lucrative to make one’s money controlling and selling water than from the crops these landowners actually grow. Those in the middle of the valley, primarily in the delta region, often can’t use this tactic as those with riparian rights (grandfathered in from pre-1914) are only allowed to utilize the water that runs through their land without diverting it off that land. Unfortunately, these regulations don’t apply to most newer landowners and agricultural groups.  

One of the most prominent, powerful and politically active of these groups at the moment is “The Wonderful Company,” an agricultural powerhouse and purveyor of such ubiquitous nationwide brands as Cuties, POM and Wonderful Pistachios run by billionaire couple Stewart & Lynda Resnick. As the world’s most prolific producers of almonds and pistachios, the Resnicks control a vast, $4.2 billion a year agricultural empire that just so happens to use more of California’s water than any other non-governmental consumer, according to Forbes. For years, Stewart Reznick has utilized his political connections and tens of millions in strategic donations to help shape and twist California’s already archaic water regulations to benefit the rapid expansion of his properties in some of the most arid, previously unfarmable desert land throughout the southernmost portions of the central valley.  

Despite all their rapid growth accelerating in the last ten or so years, Mr. Reznick’s $5.3 billion cap was secured all the way back in 1993 when California set a proverbial wrecking ball in motion with the protection of a small fish called the Delta Smelt. In order to help preserve the smelt’s habitat in the central valley’s waterways, the option to set limits on groundwater pumping was made available as a viable option. Mr. Reznick, along with many other large growers with over-extended and water intensive cropland, had already been heavily invested into the pumping and shuttling of groundwater (often at the expense of their shallower-welled neighbors) to their properties for years, becoming some of the most prolific actors in the crisis of land subsidence and significantly speeding up the sinking of entire regions to some historic lows, sucking out nearly seven cubic kilometers per year. This agricultural lobby spearheaded by Mr. Reznick pushed intensely for the state government to ensure their continued unfettered access to and partial control of local water sources, culminating in the legally dubious 1995 transfer of the Kern Water Bank.  

The water bank, with a capacity of 488 billion gallons and a prior construction cost to taxpayers of close to $148 million, was simply handed over to the agricultural consortium in return for their relinquishment of 14 billion gallons of “paper water”, essentially potential future water that exists only on spreadsheets. As the majority shareholder in the water bank according to public records from the Department of Water Resources, Mr. Reznick’s stake currently amounts to over 240 billion gallons. While Mr. Reznick and other majority shareholders have branded their ownership of the Kern Water Bank as a win for job creation and local agriculture, the old hydra head of “water farming” quickly became a major component of the banks’ program. As many had before them, the water bankers began to practice “double dipping” by purchasing water from the state during times of plenty, storing that water in their bank and selling it back to the state at grossly inflated prices during times of need with Mr. Reznick alone nabbing over $30 million in just a seven-year period.  

Although it might be easy to blame this major public issue on the earlier environmental protections put in place for the Delta Smelt, that protection, along with many put into place before and after it, were done with genuinely good intentions. Our natural ecosystem in the central valley, especially in the highly biodiverse delta region, has been in serious decline and disrepair for years, a situation perfectly encapsulated in the gradual disappearance of the smelt.  

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According to PBS station KCET, as a primary food source for spawning river salmon and a host of other important estuary fish, the delta smelt is what is known in ecology as a “keystone species,” a population whose size can be an extremely important tool in gauging the overall health of the environment in which they reside. The decline of the smelt along with other keystone species within central California’s waterways has signaled the need for more comprehensive environmental protections from the Sacramento estuaries all the way downstream to the Colorado River Aqueduct. Many have been fighting the potential measures to address these ecological problems, especially within the big agricultural lobbies, as they believe the restrictions and revitalizations proposed might negatively impact their assets. These worries are not entirely unfounded; with the continued passing of groundwater pumping limits and costly environmental impact study requirements for new construction, many in big agriculture and elsewhere will be feeling the squeeze, including the potential shuttering of large portions of farmland in the south of the valley.  

However, the imposing feud between the sprawling agriculture industry and ecological interests in the central valley are simply two points on an increasingly sharp triangle, the third being the perennial population struggle of California between the increasingly populated, dry south and the less-dense, more damp north. Finding a satisfactory compromise for all sides has proven a difficult and often prickly subject, especially in the central valley where environmentalism is often seen as a hindrance to progress rather than an investment in the future.  

One highly controversial proposal that’s gained political momentum in the last few years has been Governor Gavin Newsom’s plan to construct two large new tunnels to bring water from the north down southward to the major population centers below the valley while bypassing the delta region entirely. Unfortunately, while this was advertised as a commonsense solution for all parties, environmentalists, agriculturalists, and city dwellers alike throughout the region have rallied against the project for a wide range of reasons. Among them is the fact that draining fresh water from above the delta will not only reduce the overall water levels, but it’ll also move the boundary of brackish water from the bay further down-system into what was once fresh, flowing water utilized by both delta wildlife and local agriculture.  

Barrigan-Parrilla, a member of local group Restore the Delta, summed up the tug-of-war struggle between the central valley and the south when it comes to water in a 2016 article from Mother Jones: “They really are trying to sacrifice one region for another, if these plans come to pass, [the tunnels] are a complete existential threat to our communities, our people, and to the environment.”  

While it seems likely that these issues will persist for years to come and things will presumably get worse before they get better, the rising anger and frustration of many regular citizens in the central valley due to the consequences of this three-way conflict has led to an increase in awareness and the two essential cornerstones of building any good resolution: open communication and community activism.  

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