After the “Second Goldrush” – Possible Impacts of Groundwater Law in California

Shortage of freshwater and drinking water is rapidly becoming a major concern, as it is in the case of California, where desertification of land is progressing, and groundwater levels have extremely decreased.

Mainly due to expansive agricultural activity, intense exploitation of ground water has led to a considerable impoverishment of the ground water pools, with the associated phenomenon of soil subsidence. Subsidence consists in the lowering of the soil with the consequence of compressing the space available to restore water reserves. The ground level of Joaquin Valley, California has already decreased by 28 feet.

Before 2014, the amount of pumped water for irrigation has not been measured, such that the lowering groundwater levels progressed unobserved.

In order to prevent further critical progression of soil subsidence and eventually water shortage, California approved a law in 2014 known as the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA). This legislative package aims, at re-establishing the water quality and quantity levels of over-drafted basins, by committing water agencies to bring groundwater basins into balanced levels of pumping and recharge.

The law is coming effectively in force in 2020, raising enormous concern among the farmer’s population especially in the region of San Joaquin Valley, south-east of San Francisco. The region traditionally produces citrus fruits. Yet, the last 20 years have seen doubling the surface of land devoted to almond farming. California’s Almond production has been considered as Californias’ “second gold rush”: Almonds are a high-value commodity; yet almond trees are more water demanding and at the same time, rain and groundwater diminishes. With the implementation of SGMA, many farmers fear that they will not be able to appropriately irrigate their land; recent investments made in purchasing more plants will never be compensated by crop harvesting.

Some farm leaders are organizing groundwater trading markets that would allow growers to buy and sell pumping rights, exchanging water among more and less water-demanding cultures. Yet the risk is that water will be diverted to those farms that can afford to pay or buy more pumping rights.

Alternative solutions are also envisaged, such as reconversion of agricultural land to solar plants.

An alternative strategy could be trying to implement restorative agriculture, such as ongoing in southern Spain. More space between trees allows sprouting of grass and other vegetables that preserve the soil from drying and erosion. In other words, there could be a shift from large scale, extensive monoculture to diversified agriculture in a smaller scale.

It is perhaps time for a priority change from profit to sustainability, even for agriculture in the USA.


Delphine Magara


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Author: GEN