No one wants to see food shortages, long lines, price gouging, high unemployment, or more people in ill health the new norm.
But that’s exactly what is on the horizon based on a report that got largely ignored just as the COVID-19 pandemic started slamming the state in early March.
Economists David Sunding and David Roland-Holst examined the ramifications of California’s Sustainable Groundwater Act. The edict from Sacramento requires local agencies — cities, irrigation districts, and individual collectively in groundwater basins — not to remove more water from underground sources than is replenished in a given 12-month period. The balancing act, that includes more restrictions on surface water supplies, must be in place by 2040.
The report determined a million acres of San Joaquin Valley farmland will virtually be reclaimed by weeds and turn into a dust bowl given water shortages that will be created in perpetuity.
It will wipe out 14 percent of the state’s $44 billion annual agricultural production. The $7.2 billion loss is just a start. There would be 85,000 full-time jobs gone forever with a corresponding $2.1 billion in lost wages for countless families. Tax revenue in the valley would drop by $535 million a year.
Given California, and more specifically, the San Joaquin Valley produces nearly 60 percent of the nation’s fruits, vegetables, and nuts the impact would be horrendous. Less food grown coupled with a growing population means significantly higher prices and a smaller supply per capita. That in turn would undermine efforts to get Americans to eat more veggies, fruits, and nuts to improve their health given higher prices would put consuming the recommended servings needed to combat aside array of maladies out of the reach of many. Less fresh food means more processed food which virtually every medical professional views as bad for your health. Given we have 330 million people and growing they’d be no way to replace the loss in backyard gardens, window sill planters, and such especially in much of the nation that is not conducive to year round crop production as we are here in California.
To give you an idea on how much the nation as well as the global food chain relies on the San Joaquin Valley, the nine-county region is where the bulk of the state’s $44 billion worth of crops are produced. Iowa — No. 2 on the list of top producing food states — generates $31 billion in crops a year followed in third place by Nebraska at $24 billion.
San Joaquin County alone with its annual $2.6 billion crop production would rank 37th in the nation if it were a state in terms of growing food to feed the nation.
All of that said, the need to save us from ourselves in terms of over drafting underground water supplies is real.
The overdraft of aquifers since the 1930s has caused portions of the mid-valley to sink by more than 20 feet due to subsidence. Once that occurs the compaction of the soil makes it virtually impossible for the natural underground water storage to return.
It is clear once the water source is gone it is just that —gone.
Farmers, like urban users, have made huge strides since the 1975-1977 drought in reducing water consumption. Wasting water on a whole is much more devastating to farmers given its purchase from surface sources controlled by irrigation districts or the fact they need to run pumps to bring water to the surface. If you think your PG&E bill is high, agricultural users needing pumps are cursed with the highest PG&E rate for buying electricity.
The Northern San Joaquin Valley will be getting hit with a double whammy. A state push is underway for increased unrestricted flows on the Tuolumne, Stanislaus, and Merced rivers for the expressed purpose of being able to add 1,103 more salmon to the three rivers. By the state’s own calculations would — in a non-drought year when the impact is minimal — force 240,000 acres in San Joaquin, Stanislaus, and Merced counties to be fallow wiping out $1.6 billion in farm production and costing 6,756 jobs.
That is on top of the groundwater impacts.
Toss in water flows the courts and state have been trying to commander from the three rivers in a futile bid to prop up the Delta Smelt population as well as the myopic tunnel now being advanced by Gov. Gavin Newsom to deny the Delta use of Sacramento River water to keep salinity at bay and produce crops within the delta and Sacramento will have delivered a death blow to the poorest region in the state while at the same time making food shortages and high food prices the norm.
Groundwater recharging — that must be a top priority harnessing recycled water — by itself will not get the job done.
There are effective solutions that inflict minimal impacts on urban users, farm production, the sports fishing industry that is a lucrative concern built on non-native fish, and the environment.
More off-line storage such as the San Luis Reservoir and the envisioned Sites Reservoir is key as is increasing the capacity of select existing reservoirs.
It is clear California for tens of thousands of years has been in conditions we’d describe as drought or dry years today than “normal years” for snow and rain as defined by modern weather records that only date back to the 1850s. Mother Nature’s weather records in the form of carbon dating tree rings that stretch back thousands of years make it clear we live in a land of feast or famine.
Squirreling away water when it is plentiful to assure fish flows, food production, and urban users can be met is the most logical way to move forward. It would also allow the “replacement” of some of the loss of underground water pumping. It is not “the” answer per se as we still need to step up everything from water conservation to cisterns — rain collection systems — in urbanized areas.
Water has always been the key to the California dream as well as what could kill it off.
The last time there was a comprehensive water plan for the state was in the 1960s when there were 16 million people or 24 million less Californians.
We have spent the last 50 plus years quibbling over water policy with little to show for it.
It is ironic than in less than a couple of weeks California and the rest of the nation moved at light year speed to put in place solutions to stop COVID-19 from ravaging civilization. Those solutions likely means it will be a minimal threat 18 months to three years from now.
Yet with water that is even more critical in California than most other states to manage and develop properly to minimize harm to people Sacramento not only can’t get its act together but it cuts loose local areas — including the poorest region in the state — to fend for itself while sacrificing it for the wealthy enclaves of coastal urbanization.