As the executive director of the California Farm Water Coalition, Mike Wade educates the public and policymakers on how California’s greatest water issues are all intertwined.

“You can't pull on one string without it affecting all the others,” he said in a recent interview.

The nonprofit organization takes a collaborative approach to finding “regulations that work and are not job killers,” he said. With California agriculture leading in healthcare, wages, working conditions and environmental safety, Wade wants to ensure that food production stays in California.

Wade spoke with Agri-Pulse about the policy choices a century ago that led to the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA) today, as well at the latest progress on the Voluntary Settlement Agreements for the Bay-Delta Plan and an innovative new project for the San Joaquin Valley.

  1. How worried should farmers be about SGMA?

Well, we've relied on groundwater for many years in California. We've actually been where we are now about 100 years ago – maybe not to the extent that we are now but we had groundwater overdraft and we had farmland that was in jeopardy of going out of production. A lot of that led to building the federal and the state water projects that had been conceived years earlier.

Particularly, the Central Valley Project was built to provide surface water supplies to the Sacramento Valley and the San Joaquin Valley. In parts of the San Joaquin Valley, it was delivering surface water to help offset groundwater overdraft, and it was successful. It turned around the overdraft that was occurring and farmers were able to stay in business and stay productive and grow.

Over the subsequent decades, we've seen a shift in water supply and water policy management. Surface water supplies to a great extent have been reallocated to serve environmental purposes that were not envisioned when the Central Valley Project was built. The end result has been both the state and the federal projects have been able to deliver less and less water. It's been less reliable, and farmers returned to their groundwater use. The lack of surface water and the growth in the industry contributed to groundwater overdraft again.

Arguably, there's been more groundwater overdraft in recent years than in previous years. If we look at the time period from around 1988 to 2002, according to the Public Policy Institute of California, we were overdrafting about 1.3 million acre-feet a year. From 2003 to 2017, that jumped to 2.4 million acre-feet a year. The largest share of that jump occurred after the 2008 and 2009 delta smelt and salmon biological opinions (governing the Central Valley Project).

It was a further reduction in surface supplies. It was a combination of drought years. It was a variety of effects that drove people back to pumping more groundwater. Even in the earlier years, the 1.3 million acre-feet a year wasn't sustainable and 2.4 certainly isn't sustainable. In 2014, in the middle of that, we got the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act. That act requires groundwater basins in California to be in balance throughout a five-year cycle. Some years, there's going to be overdraft; other years, there's going to be recharge. Overall, they have to be in balance over a five-year cycle.

Public water agencies – irrigation and water districts – have been looking from 2014 to January of 2020 into developing GSAs, or groundwater sustainability agencies. Those agencies have been developing the groundwater sustainability plans that their regions have to abide by to achieve this groundwater balance. There are a lot of different regions in the state, some more impacted than others, some that are probably already able to meet their goals. Others are going to have an extremely difficult time meeting those goals. We're going to see a significant amount of land fallowing overall in the state as a result of reducing groundwater reliance.

  1. How do you feel the adoption has been for awareness around the groundwater plans?

Early on, the awareness was just not there. People were thinking it's a problem that will resolve itself, that there might be some minor adjustments that need to be made and people will go forward and continue to farm as they had in the past.

That's not really what's going to happen. There are some areas that are looking at restricting pumping to as little as a third of an acre-foot per acre per year. If you're growing a crop that takes two or three acre-feet per acre per year, you are not going to be farming all the acreage you're accustomed to. You'll be consolidating. You'll be farming fewer acres with the remaining water. You'll be more reliant potentially on water purchases, if it's available.

What we've seen is that that water districts are working on plans not only to improve their ability to capture and recharge stormwater and floodwaters when they are available, but also finding more flexible ways to transfer water within their district and potentially with users who may be in the district but outside of a GSA. What they call white areas are most at risk. Those are the areas that will be reliant on the flexibility that is being built into some of these plans to capture and redeliver water.

  1. Farmers already work in a complex regulatory environment in California. How realistic is it for them to figure out to the economics, legalities and science around recharge projects and water trading

It is complex. But there are a lot of really smart people working on developing new recharge basins and on the rules governing GSAs.

There will be a point in time where you have to be up to speed on it. You're not going to just get up in the morning and discover that the water supply is being cut by 60% or more. The GSAs have been working on outreach to get people educated. Some may be out there who are just ignoring it and they're going to find out that they can't pump water like they have in the past. Others are going into it with their eyes open and understanding they're going to have to make some changes

There's potentially a million acres that could be retired. With the maximum flexibility with transfers and with new recharge projects and water sharing, PPIC has said that the fallowing could be limited to perhaps 535,000 acres. It'll be somewhere around there without any additional projects or federal relief on delivering water through the federal water project or state relief through the State Water Project.

This all fits together in making it work for our industry and for urban users as well.

  1. On that note, how have the negotiations over the Voluntary Settlement Agreements been progressing?

The voluntary agreements have support from the governor. He's taking the lead. Natural Resources Agency Secretary) Wade Crowfoot and (CalEPA Secretary) Jared Blumenfeld have been spokesmen on behalf of the administration and have been out supporting the Voluntary Agreements.

They would put $687,000 million into a fund that would construct ecosystem restoration projects and pay for some of the activities needed to make this work. There's a commitment to 300,000 acre-feet of water or so of new flows going into our rivers to support the ecosystem project.

This isn't just a paper plan. There's some real effort going into making that work.

It's part of the governor's vision for water supply resiliency, which is having the flexibility moving forward to limit the negative impacts on agriculture and urban users and still have the outcomes on environmental restoration that we want.

Over the last 10 years, we’ve put a lot of water down the rivers, we've limited what we've delivered to farms and there's been a lot of Bay-Delta outflow. And we've had little, if anything, to show for it.

Rather than complying with regulations for regulation’s sake, the voluntary agreements shift us to a process that's geared towards success and adaptive management to make sure what we're doing is working, rather than just turning a clinic to meet some regulatory requirement.

  1. What else should farmers know?

Well, there is one more new effort underway and it's called the San Joaquin Valley Blueprint.

The blueprint tries to get its arms around all the things we're talking about, particularly the water imbalance in the San Joaquin Valley and the regulatory and structural ways to offset what potentially is going to be a million acres of land retirement. The Blueprint looks at the federal-state relationship on operating the State Water Project and the federal Central Valley Project and how those work together. It's looking at improving conveyance, whether it's structural improvements in some of our canals or regulatory improvements on how and where we're allowed to deliver water. It looks at new storage, north of the delta and south of the delta.

Combining all of these efforts potentially would limit land retirement to maybe half of the PPIC’s rosiest picture. That's maybe 250,000 acres as opposed to 535,000.

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