As California restricts water use for farmers, low supply levels add to drought’s harsh reality

Sep 3, 2021

California’s re-emerging drought is placing unprecedented strain on the state’s intricate water system, threatening mass agricultural production and basic drinking water in a way experts say is more severe than in years past.

Folsom Lake, California
Photo by Simon Hurry on Unsplash

Federal officials on Aug. 16 declared a first-ever water shortage from the Colorado River — which supplies drinking and irrigation water to a number of western states like Colorado, Nevada, Arizona and California — after water levels from the Lake Mead reservoir fell to record lows.

In California, officials are turning their attention to the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta — a massive water system that is fed by dozens of rivers that helps move water from the north of the state to the south and provides water to two-thirds of the state’s population.

The challenge facing regulators during the worsening drought is how to get people to use less water. All of California is under a drought condition, causing water levels to drop dangerously low for farming and residential use. The problem is only worsening by heatwaves and a lack of snowmelt that would typically help sustain the state’s rivers and reservoirs, officials say. Water use from farmers and communities is exceeding the delta’s supply; some reservoirs that feed it have dropped to historic low storage levels, with one dropping to as little as 13 percent.

The state has directed households and businesses to cut water use by 15 percent during the drought emergency. Gov. Gavin Newsom has signaled mandatory water restrictions could be coming some time in September, depending on the forecast for both the drought and the anticipated rainy season that begins in October.

But whether voluntary or mandatory, there are questions about whether water restriction orders would do enough, after decades of major water overuse and a dwindling supply.

“The only way to become sustainable is to lower the water demand until it matches supply,” David Cehrs, a Fresno County citrus farmer, said. “But nobody wants to do it because it will hurt their economy. Well, the economy is the same thing. You can’t have infinite growth on the economy on a resource that is finite. That resource is water.”

In August, the California State Water Resources Control Board approved an emergency regulation to limit how much water can be taken out of rivers and canals that feed the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, which helps transport water in much of the state. It’s one of several measures leaders hope can help them avoid the worst case scenarios of being unable to deliver crucial drinking and irrigation water if the major water source runs dry, a likelihood made more possible by climate change.

The state’s effort to maintain certain water levels in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta is also an effort to wash away ocean salt that is washing into the Delta in northern California. The lack of water statewide makes it much more important to find the pressure needed to wash away the salt, which could harm the quality of the water used for agriculture and domestic use, according to officials.

Over the years, the state has also seen a slowly sinking ground as ground water levels, primarily in the San Joaquin Valley, fall lower from irrigation and well operations — a process called subsidence that happens when too much water is sucked out of the ground and isn’t replaced. Water experts say if too much water is taken out of the ground, the volume of water that can be held in the future decreases. Less water storage underground means less water that can be used overall.

Combined with less surface water, this has meant less water is available to farms and communities during peak irrigation periods. Unlike previous drought periods, officials say more people will feel the effects of drought this time around. In one of the more extreme scenarios, up to 10,000 users who are legally entitled to pull water for “beneficial” purposes in the state could be affected by the water cutoffs from the state’s rivers and canals.

The board sent first notices Aug. 20 to approximately 4,500 water rights holders instructing them to stop diverting water from rivers and canals. The Water Resources Board hired 15 additional staff who will act as enforcers of the water curtailments, responding to complaints and issuing notices to illegal water diverters during this period in an “increcemental enforcement process.” Anyone taking water from streams for their own use during a curtailment order can face fines of up to $5,000 per day, according to the State Water Board.

Water curtailments were considered in the last significant drought the state experienced in 2014 to 2015 — which even garnered a visit from then-President Barack Obama — but they didn’t materialize.

State officials expected this would be a dry year, though by the spring, the outlook became much worse, said Diane Riddle, assistant deputy director for the Division of Water Rights at the State Water Board.

Little rainfall coupled with heat waves, combined with wildfire burn scars in mountain regions have been evaporating chunks of the state’s Sierra Nevada snowpack, she said. Riddle said that created a roughly 800,000-acre foot deficit in expected water runoff from the Sierra Nevada that is contributing to diminished surface water coming down.

“This drought is worse in terms of its intensity,” Riddle told the NewsHour. “The reservoir storage levels are in worse condition.”

Going dry, despite groundwater law

In recent decades, water demand has only increased in cities up and down the state, requiring more water use from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, ground and other surface sources. The state hasn’t necessarily granted new rights to water, but those with existing water rights have found ways to maximize water use. Some farmers, facing revenue losses, have resorted to permanent crops, such as almonds, that can turn a bigger profit but also require more water to be pumped from the ground.

With looming regulations of surface water, many will continue to look underground to the prized, but fast-depleting water sources. Some cities and farmers are racing to recharge aquifers — giant water storage pools underground — as much as they can year-round not only to have some water for the future, but also to meet state regulations to preserve groundwater.

In 2014, legislators approved the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA), which fully goes into effect in 2040. Until then, the legislation calls for the creation of Sustainable Groundwater Agencies — in roughly 140 different groundwater basins in the state — that are tasked with bringing the basins up to sustainable levels. One result of the law will be a reduction of farmland.

The agencies are made up of community members such as elected officials, farmers and environmentalists. While the state reviews hundreds of water plans, the agencies must simultaneously work toward sustainability — limiting water use and recharging the aquifer — and must show progress every five years until the law fully takes effect.

However, the long-term water plan is at odds with the extreme drought gripping much of the state. Even with SGMA’s early work, wells are going dry and farmers are using as much of their available water as possible to keep up with their crops. Some farmers, acknowledging their role in water usage, say conserving water is a tough, but necessary, mission, even during a high-demand water year.

Cehrs, the Fresno County citrus farmer, also said the overall success of reaching sustainable groundwater levels rests on the efforts of individual sustainability agencies who are tasked with the job of helping recharge the state’s basins. Some sustainability agencies oversee areas that only rely on groundwater, so getting them to limit water use will be crucial for their success and the success of their neighboring agencies, Cehrs said.

“There’s not only an individual GSA problem, there is a collective GSA problem because you’ve got to work in that subbasin together,” Cehrs said.

Cehrs farms in the Kings Subbasin, which comprises seven sustainability agencies working to recharge one section of the Valley’s overall aquifer, which has been overdrafted for the past 70 years, he said. He owns 170 acres of citrus orchards that sit next to the Kings River in eastern Fresno County, which feeds the Pine Flat Reservoir in the mountains and provides irrigation water to hundreds of farms in the Valley. Cehrs is also a member of the Kings River Conservation District, which works on flood control and water conservation efforts along the river. He said areas nearest to rivers, like his citrus orchards, are holding up well during the drought because river water keeps a healthy accumulation in the ground that helps the crops overtime.

But at a 40-acre citrus parcel Cehrs owns north of the city of Reedley, he’s reminded of an entirely different reality.

Last month, the well pump on his parcel suddenly started pumping air — the water level had dropped so low, his pumps no longer reached water. The problem? In recent years, five wells sprung up to the north of his orchard, and six others to the south. Since he purchased his property, water levels have fallen nearly 40 feet. He said the volume of water extraction shows the scramble happening in many places around the Valley that is leaving areas dry.

“The stress on the aquifer is very high, and that stress is lowering the water table. In effect, we are all in a race to the bottom,” he said.

‘Small losers, big losers, and complete losers’

Water runs everything in California. Considered one of the most “hydrologically altered landmasses on the planet,” for its ability to transport water from both directions of the state, the capacity of mileslong canal systems is being tested by the drought. As farmers assess their options, state and local officials are aiming to preserve drinking water for millions of residents.

“There’s going to be small losers, big losers, and complete losers — and probably no winners,” Cehrs said. “It’s not just agriculture that could be in trouble, it could be that the municipalities are at risk to as much a degree as I am as an ag person.”

READ MORE: Wildfires are increasing health risks of already-polluted regions of the U.S., experts warn

A wet year would reverse some of these troubles, but there is currently no guarantee next year will be one of those, Riddle, from the State Water Board, said. As it is, the Climate Prediction Center forecasts a La Niña weather system for the coming fall and winter. The system affects weather patterns, and typically means warmer winter temperatures and drier conditions in California and other southwestern states.

“We’re facing extreme conditions this year and concerning conditions going into next year if water users don’t constrain their use and we’re not able to maintain the storage,” Riddle said.

The drought has left Stan Morita, a third- generation farmer holding on to a Fresno County raisin farm that his Japanese ancestors started in 1918, with more questions than answers. His biggest question: How will this end?

“You know that it probably will get worse before it gets better,” he said.

Morita said he will continue to chart a path forward with his harvests, despite the mounting costs not just from the drought, but by regulations that make small farms like his tougher to operate under these conditions. He said he pays his workers $14 an hour, even though he qualifies under the state’s wage laws to pay them a dollar less. He says his roughly two-dozen workers are loyal despite the challenges, and he tries to show his gratitude; many of them speak Spanish, and he’s learning their language to better communicate with them.

But to compete in this new world, especially among industrial farming, Morita believes he would have to become more mechanized, something that only giant farm productions are suited to experiment with in hard times like a drought. As it is, he spends upward of $1,000 on each irrigation of his farm. This is particularly concerning, given that rain and snowpack water was only enough to garner surface water one month out of the year this year.

Like everyone, he’s bracing for the drought’s ripple effects and he and thousands of farmers and workers are left to stand in the drought’s shadow, reckoning with an uncertain future.

“Maybe this is the way of mom-and-pop farms, in that maybe as we get further into the 21st century, we have more issues with climate change and lack of water,” Morita said. “I can’t pack up my 80 acres of Central Valley farmland and move it to a more drought-resistant state.”

Household drinking water a growing challenge

These aren’t only problems facing farms. Thousands of workers and families living in small communities are also contending with their own futures, as some deal with unreliable running water in their homes — this year and for many years before.

In Tooleville, California, a small unincorporated community of about 80 homes in eastern Tulare County, residents are relying on a single well after one was turned off because it could no longer reach groundwater.

The only working well reaches 200 feet into the ground, and is struggling. For decades, residents in the community pleaded with the state to force a connection to a nearby city’s water system under a recently-passed lawFor years, the efforts were unsuccessful, until Aug. 23, when the State Water Board informed the community it would order the nearby city of Exeter to bring Tooleville into its water system. The city and town will negotiate a voluntary consolidation as a first step, according to a letter sent to Exeter city officials.

Despite the community being just feet away from the Friant-Kern Canal, a segment of a federal canal system that moves millions of gallons of water along the eastern edge of the Valley, the town’s residents have no rights to it, so their options have always been limited to the ground or getting water from their neighboring city.

Maria Olivera, a business owner and secretary of the Tooleville Mutual Nonprofit Water Association, believes it’s only a matter of time before their second well stops sending water to her and her neighbors. The community, too small to afford major improvements to its water system, is surrounded by thirsty agricultural land putting residents in a fierce competition for water access, even if it comes at the expense of families not being able to bathe or cook.

“I think [the farms] took the water away from us,” Olivera said. “I’m really afraid for this pump to go dry.”

Laura Ramos, programs manager at the California Water Institute at California State University, Fresno, said as a safeguard, communities should have two or more sources of water that can serve as back up if one fails, such as during a power outage that can knock out the ability to pump water. But in the Valley’s vast region, inequality persists for small communities.

While some communities have access to a combination of surface and groundwater for its residents, others — like Tooleville — are too small and under-resourced, and can only rely on what’s available from the ground. State agencies have also been summoned to deliver water from miles away to meet the demand.

For years, the City of Fresno has been focused on storing excess water it gets from rivers and canals by placing it in a ponding basin area called “Leaky Acres,” near the Fresno Yosemite International Airport.

There, the water seeps into the ground and recharges the aquifer below the city of just over half a million, where water is then available to pump during an especially dry year. The ongoing drought promises to test the capacity of many communities to deliver water to residents. And there are some better suited than others.“It’s the communities that haven’t been doing groundwater recharge that … I don’t know if they’re ready right now,” Ramos said.