The resiliency of farmers in the San Joaquin Valley is going to be severely tested as state and federal agencies limit surface water allocations and as groundwater sustainability plans begin to be implemented, according to David Orth, a water policy expert and former general manager of the Westlands Water District.
Speaking to the California chapter of the American Society of Farm Managers and Rural Appraisers last week, Orth explained how the “dismal” conditions for surface water storage will continue a dependence on groundwater this year. This is already resulting in water scarcity, higher prices and more water transfers, he said.
The Department of Water Resources (DWR) is currently evaluating the first round of plans submitted for the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, which are for the most critically overdrafted basins.
“In areas where we've had unfettered groundwater use for the last several decades, there's going to be a striking impact as these plans are implemented,” said Orth. “SGMA is going to start impacting as early as 2021 water supplies on the farm.”
The groundwater sustainability agencies implementing the plans need to balance the economic impacts with a ramping down of pumping. Most have started the transition by maintaining “business as usual” for a year or two before stepping down the pumping, which gives some flexibility to growers for dry years like this one. Most of the plans would implement some type of groundwater trading market. But Orth and his colleagues at the consulting firm New Current Water and Land have not seen functional markets yet in the San Joaquin Valley, and the markets that do develop are going to be highly restricted and limited in their use, he said.
Within the next two to three months, DWR will release the first assessments of the plans.
“DWR has essentially already advised many of us that none of the [plans] that they have can expect an A grade,” said Orth. “There’s going to be corrective action lists for all of them. Many should expect something below a passing grade.”
Many will be incomplete or told to fix certain parts, with 180 days allowed under the statute to make the adjustments.
“The question is how much flexibility the state agencies will grant,” he said.
Orth wondered if DWR will demand that all relevant data be included, as well as plans for restoring groundwater-dependent ecosystems. If the groundwater agencies are unable to comply, the state will take over control of the subbasin through the State Water Resources Control Board and charge the agencies for running it. Orth estimated that will be inevitable for certain subbasins.
“There are going to be some examples made,” he said. “The state board is on record of saying if they have to step in and manage, they’re not going to be real creative. They're going to force a quick reduction to sustainable yield.”
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Orth cautioned that the litigation is just beginning over the plans and to keep an eye on what these early lawsuits will mean for groundwater agencies to understand the impacts to growers.
For those appraising agricultural land values, the plans leave many questions unanswered.
“These [plans] are complex, they're difficult to understand or interpret, they're uncertain. There's data gaps in them,” said Orth.
Appraisers are certain to see the continued trend of values going up for lands with multiple sources of water while those dependent on groundwater only are swinging the opposite direction.
The drought will continue to drive water prices up. Orth believes that groundwater is already more scarce than what the plans reflect, and once that is recognized, prices will go up further and eventually reach a level based on the actual value of the commodity generated from each water source.
The long-term solution for the groundwater curtailing in the valley, he said, would be to restore surface water deliveries from the Sacramento–San Joaquin Bay Delta.
“I'm not optimistic that we're going to solve that problem,” said Orth. “The reality is we're going to see a shrinking [of agricultural land]. There's just, in my view, no way to get around it.”
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