“Yet, hear me, people, we have now to deal with another race – small and feeble when our fathers first met them but now great and overbearing. Strangely enough they have a mind to till the soil and the love of possession is a disease with them. These people have made many rules that the rich may break but the poor may not. They take their tithes from the poor and weak to support the rich and those who rule.” Sitting Bull
According the U.S. Geological Survey, the largest known area of land subsidence in the world—some 1500 square miles—is in the San Joaquin Valley, between Los Banos and Kettleman City. The subsidence occurred decades ago when Valley farmers pumped groundwater to service the greatest food-producing region in the world.
Today, Valley farmers continue to pump groundwater at near-record rates. They did so during the worst drought in recent memory, they’re doing so now, and they will continue to do so. The subsidence and the ongoing pumping, much of which has resulted in complete depletion of the last of the nation’s great aquifers, continues because it’s fundamental to so-called “free market” economics, a major but unwritten tenet of which encourages privatizing profits and socializing costs.
Though California is known derisively as the “Left Coast,” the San Joaquin Valley has managed to remain archly conservative. No other large tract in California is so consistently “red,” and nowhere else has managed so consistently to avoid the kind of environmental awareness that has given the rest of the state its “leftist” reputation.
A major reason is groundwater. Out of sight and therefore out of mind, it for decades provided the magic elixir that converted fertile valley soil into the most productive farm ground in the world. The environmental consequences, including land that sunk as much as twenty-seven feet in some places, were so seldom acknowledged that California didn’t even have groundwater oversight until 2014, when it implemented the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA).
But many observers, including retired hydrologist Vance Kennedy, believe groundwater regulation is still far too lax to have truly beneficial effects. For one thing, the command to achieve groundwater sustainability gives farmers decades to comply. For another, it prohibits the public from knowing how much water is being pumped at a given location.
And in a major lapse, groundwater regulation fails to highlight the connections between surface water and groundwater. So it is that wells near rivers, lakes, and reservoirs continue to pump groundwater that is replenished by surface water belonging to the public—there’s no record of how much, and there’s no recompense. In fact, there’s little to no public knowledge of what’s happening.
Instead, farmers and their supporters have mounted well-funded publicity campaigns against “The Enviros,” supporters of living rivers who want to restore fish, wetlands, and the San Joaquin Delta by increasing flows along Valley rivers nearly drained from overuse. Like the sinking landscape, overuse of the rivers has been a one-sided game, producing huge profits for the users and huge losses for the public.
The profits—billions of dollars—have translated into political power that finds its way not just to the state capitol, but all the way to Washington D.C. Republican Congressman Devin Nunes represents a district including portions of Fresno and Tulare Counties that received nearly half a billion dollars in farm subsidies just from 1995 to 2014 alone. He’s much more notorious, however, for deflecting inquiries into the Trump campaign’s connections with Russia.
Nunes’ former chief of staff, Johnny Amaral, was hired in 2015 as a lobbyist for Westlands Water District, which is best known for demanding increased pumping of Delta water south to farms that long ago depleted groundwater supplies. Westlands will pay Amaral $250,000 a year to oppose the Endangered Species Act, secure water for corporate farms, and fight against increased flows along Valley rivers.
District 10’s Jeff Denham, who made his money in the plastics industry, touts himself as a “Valley Farmer” while opposing protection for Valley rivers, equal pay for women, and measures to mitigate the effects of global warming.
While Valley farmers routinely demonize government and tout the virtues of the free market, they spend millions on lobbyists and occupy positions of political leadership at every level throughout the Valley, especially on water boards and on boards of supervisors. Republican farmers have majorities on the boards of the Modesto Irrigation District, Oakdale Irrigation District, and on the Stanislaus County Board of Supervisors alone. And when they themselves don’t occupy positions of power, they make sure their allies do with generous campaign contributions.
The result is government that serves the few at the expense of the many. Notorious for poverty, low educational levels, right-wing politics, and its huge population of immigrant farmworkers, the San Joaquin Valley is a prime example of the failure of free market fantasies. With the Valley’s wealth and power concentrated in fewer hands than ever, poverty and homelessness are epidemic, middle class wages have stagnated, but housing costs and the cost of education have risen steadily.
Land subsidence will cost billions of public dollars. It has damaged public structures everywhere it’s occurred, including roads, bridges, canals and dams. The depletion of our rivers has devastated fisheries, upset the ecological balance of the San Joaquin Delta, endangered species of fish and wildlife, and now threatens the biological balance of the San Francisco Bay.
When the time comes for massive repair of Valley infrastructure damaged by the sinking land, it won’t be those grown wealthy from pumping groundwater who pay. When the time comes to restore our rivers, our fisheries, our delta, and the San Francisco Bay, it won’t be the rich and powerful who pay. No, when the bill comes due for the environmental devastation wrought by wringing the last dollar out of Valley water, it will be the public who pays.
The only things that have trickled down in the San Joaquin Valley are social and environmental devastation. The failed promise of free-market “Reaganomics” can be measured in a sinking landscape that mirrors the sinking fortunes of middle- and lower-class Valley citizens.
About The Author
Eric Caine formerly taught in the Humanities Department at Merced College.
He was an original Community Columnist at the Modesto Bee, and
wrote for The Bee for over twelve years.