Nicely done, Sabalow, Kasler and Reese.

I cannot help but notice that all of the growers interviewed for this article on new wells in the San Joaquin Valley are servicing permanent crops (wine grapes, almonds).

During the crisis, Ralph Gutierrez, manager of Woodville’s utility district, said that because there wasn’t enough pressure in the town’s waterlines, he had no choice but to cite residents he caught spritzing lawns and landscaping with garden hoses.

He noted with irony that even as he was fining residents for their water use, he recently counted 60 new agricultural wells just outside town during one week of his daily commute.

But the response he got was icy when he suggested to farmers at a recent community meeting that they accept limits on groundwater pumping.

“If looks could kill, I would have been crucified,” said Gutierrez…

I have been suggesting a moratorium on planting new permanent crops in basins with declining groundwater levels for years.  There would be the obvious immediate benefit of fewer new plantings in permanent crops and fewer new wells. But this example illustrates the real benefit.

It is evident that the growers are gaming the long lead times of the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act.  Further, they have no buy-in for the Act, and by these quotes, are acting in their own short-term self-interest.  So far, they see no benefit to them in the types of local cooperative solutions that SGMA is counting on.  (I have never shared SGMA’s optimism about local governance and believe that deferring to local governance is a way for the State to skip out on its responsibilities.)  Further, a local manager here is overpowered by scorn when he suggests cooperative solutions. That local manager would be substantially helped out by having the State act as Bad Cop.

If the State genuinely wants SGMA to work, they must change the default.  It must suck worse for local growers to avoid and game SGMA than it sucks for them to get together to work on SGMA.  I think the moratorium I have proposed would do that, but I’m sure there are other possibilities out there.  This article shows that the existing default will not drive growers to sustainable groundwater management.



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3 responses to “Nicely done, Sabalow, Kasler and Reese.

  1. Mike Johnston

    A moratorium on planting permanent crops in basins that are in severe overdraft is an interesting concept…
    Just out of curiosity, what agency would you see making the decisions on imposing such moratoria and is there existing authority to do so, or would it require legislative action?

    • onthepublicrecord

      I think the State Board could declare planting a crop with steady water needs for the next two or three decades on a receding water supply an unreasonable use of water.

    • The right to pump groundwater from underneath your land has never been constrained by California law, as far as I know. I think “reasonable” use which governs diverted surface water does not apply to groundwater use (yet, until the inevitable court challenges to SGMA get adjudicated).

      SGMA, which is sorely needed, will be fought tooth and nail just as soon as farmers begin to see how their pumping will be constrained. I don’t blame them either – this will be seen as taking a fundamental property right.