It didn’t take long for elation to turn to dismay after state legislators approved regulations on groundwater. If Governor Brown signs off, California will become the last state to enact groundwater rules. Sort of.
In fact, all the fuss about groundwater has done is establish more firmly Big Ag’s unshakeable grip on water policy.
The tell is in the state’s requirement that counties achieve groundwater “sustainability” by 2040. From today, that’s almost exactly the life of an almond orchard—so don’t be surprised when the rush to plant more almonds wherever there might be a last remnant of groundwater accelerates exponentially.
That’s what’s happening in the foothills of eastern Stanislaus and Merced Counties, where the orchards are going in as fast as tractors can level and rip the soil. Think anyone’s worried about anything but wringing out the last cent from whatever water remains?
By 2040, sustainability will mean waiting a few hundred years for rainfall to recharge whichever aquifers haven’t been ruined forever by subsidence and compaction. Sustainability will mean requiring those who’ve been tapping water from rivers, lakes, streams, and reservoirs to start paying for the water they divert from public sources. And at that point they’ll have moved on to easier pickings anyway.
By 2040, vast tracts of the San Joaquin Valley will be salt-ridden wastelands. Much of the best soil, the stuff that’s not just fertile but permeable enough to recharge the aquifer through flood irrigation, will have been covered by housing tracts, business parks, and shopping centers. Many of today’s common vegetables, things like Brussels sprouts, broccoli, cucumbers, and kale, will have become boutique items—expensive delicacies for the favored few.
Should the demand for nuts remain, the few places with water enough to grow them will continue to reap an agricultural bonanza. Farmers in those regions won’t be planting much else unless the price justifies it.
By 2040, the myth that control of groundwater is best left in local hands will have gone the way of the myth that Wall Street functions better without regulation. Local governments are about as equipped to deal with Big Ag as the Bush administration was to deal with the housing bubble.
As was the case with an unregulated Wall Street, the biggest players in groundwater are also the worst abusers of “sustainability.” They know that most local authorities are willing to rate property rights over the public trust 99% of the time anyway. And whenever there’s a challenge, litigation is just a cost of doing business.
Some reports say almond growers can net as much as $5,000 an acre. Those numbers enable the really big nut growers to field attorneys on retainer like some cities field football teams. Local authorities are almost always out of their league, even when they have good intentions.
Even with the weakest of rules, Big Ag and San Joaquin Valley politicians are whining that regulation will kill the farm economy. They should realize that when it comes to mining groundwater, the farm economy has already decided to kill itself. The only issue is who’s going to have the most money when the wells run dry.