Between groundwater overdraft, urban growth and climate change decreasing useful precip, I predict that 3 million acres of irrigated agriculture in California will go out of production in the next few decades. What I can’t predict is how they will go out of production. Here are some ways it could happen:
- The State could offer to buy agricultural land at five times market rate, from anyone who wants to sell. Or the State could buy out entire water districts, so that it owns contiguous land.
- The State could do nothing, let wells fail and let growers eat their losses individually, wherever they are. Counties would pay for the costs of scattered abandoned lands.
- Water districts could plan for continued shortages, identifying the lands that will not get water, allowing the land along entire laterals to go dry. The remaining farmers could pay compensation to the farmers who will not receive water.
- The State could identify 6 million acres of prime ag land that it wants to support. It could offer that acreage the assurance of water during droughts or monetary support in dry years in exchange for growing fruits and veggies. It could forbid groundwater pumping for ag use outside the 6 million acres.
- The State could hasten the failure of the 3 million acres by forbidding groundwater overdraft, billing farmers for the costs of subsidence, and banning almond orchards.
- The State could offer to buy out lands during generational change.
There are lots of ways this could happen. Only some of them have horrible outcomes for everyone. Some of them have costs in money and some of them have costs in human suffering. Some of them concentrate wealth among the already wealthy and some of them support middle class farming towns. When I am pessimistic, I am not pessimistic that the land will go out of production. That is inevitable. I am pessimistic that refusing to face that fact means that the collapse will be catastrophic, disorderly and borne by individuals, instead of planned, orderly and borne by all of us. I am pessimistic that the taboo of describing a poorer future means that we won’t do the work to create the least bad outcome.