A federal report called attention to land subsidence in the San Joaquin Valley as a result of excessive pumping of groundwater. It is true that groundwater is being used to irrigate farms at an unsustainable rate. It is also true that something needs to change. However, the prevailing and one-sided commentary from government officials and environmental organizations can be summed up as, “Farmers should use less water.”
No one outside of the farm communities that produce healthy and affordable food for our entire nation seems willing to look at another obvious answer: The federal and state governments need to restore reliable surface water deliveries to our farms.
During the Great Depression, a similar groundwater overdraft condition was becoming evident in the San Joaquin Valley. At that time, vast areas of the valley lacked reliable surface water supplies, leaving farmers no option but to pump groundwater. Congress and the administration of President Franklin D. Roosevelt faced the same question we face today: What do we do about groundwater overdraft and land subsidence in the San Joaquin Valley?
Their response was quite different from what we hear today. They embarked on the design and construction of a vast system of reservoirs, dams and canals to capture abundant precipitation in the northern areas of California and deliver that water to farms in the San Joaquin Valley. They recognized that the San Joaquin Valley had the potential to become one of the most productive farming areas in the world — an economic benefit to the country as well as a national security imperative.
With the completion of the Central Valley Project, water was reliably delivered to farms across a vast area of the valley. Reliance on groundwater was greatly reduced and the groundwater tables recovered. Thus was born the greatest food production success story in human history. Today the San Joaquin Valley produces $17.5 billion in fresh fruits, vegetables and tree nuts, most of which is delivered affordably to Americans across the continent. Some is exported to other countries, which translates to nearly $40 billion in economic output for California, with thousands of jobs not just on the farms, but in banking, insurance, farm supply, transportation and many other occupations. At the same time, California farmers have invested hundreds of millions of dollars in water efficiency systems and practices, greatly reducing the amount of water needed to produce a box of table grapes, romaine lettuce, almonds or any of the other dozens of fresh foods supplied by the San Joaquin Valley.
But this American success story is under threat of dying right before our eyes.
Farmers who were promised an adequate and reliable supply of water delivered through a system they pay for are being told to expect no water at all in 2014. None. This is because in addition to being in one of California’s periodic drought conditions, federal endangered species rules are being used to choke off the water supply. Farmers are understandably worried about losing everything they have, and are tapping groundwater supplies to keep their crops alive and protect their investments.
Today, instead of building on our water delivery system to protect against groundwater overdraft and ensure a secure supply of food for America, government regulators and environmentalists seek to shut down that very system and prevent the farmers from accessing the only other water available: groundwater.
Their goal is to drive farmers in the San Joaquin Valley out of business and let the land return to a windblown desert.
Does that sound like exaggeration? It doesn’t if you are one of the thousands of farmers being told you will get no water from the Central Valley Project this year while state officials are also threatening to use legal action to prevent you from accessing your only other water supply. The chairman of the state’s Delta Stewardship Council said as much on November 21 when he noted that the Delta Plan, which his council developed, calls for state regulators to bring legal action to restrict access to groundwater in order to prevent continued overdraft. Instead of harassing farmers with lawsuits, how about taking action to make good on the promises made by the government to deliver a reliable supply of surface water? That would eliminate the need for legal action and ensure that our nation continues to protect its domestic food supply.
There is still time to rescue one of America’s greatest economic and security assets: the farms of the San Joaquin Valley. But the path our federal and state governments are blindly heading down is the path to the valley’s eventual destruction.
(This article was first published in the Fresno Bee as an Op-Ed piece on Dec. 11, 2013.)
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