“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.
Damon Woods says
The title of this article seems to decry that Republicans are to blame. It appears to me that those on the left enjoy the blame game. I am a Republican, but I (and many of my friends) are not in favor of excessive pumping of groundwater. The majority of a group of conservatives in East Oakdale have been working hard to stop the excessive pumping and yet, here we are -being blamed. The blame does not fall on either side of the aisle- the blame should be directed to those who seek personal gain vs. the greater good of the valley. Such as the current majority at OID and their benefactors- who seek to profit from excessive ground water pumping.
Eric Caine says
No question there are a lot of good Republicans Damon, and you are one of the best.
West Sider says
Yea, last time checked Adam Gray and Congressman Jim Costa were Democrats and they support the same positions on water as Valley Republicans do. And they are not against increased flows. They are opposed to the state’s water grab. Some people seem to blindly believe in the state bureaucracy to fix this. They and the other groups involved in this have such a great track record thus far.
Eric Caine says
West Sider you’re right about Gray and Costa. Democrats in the Valley tend to be of the “Blue Dog” variety and seldom stand in favor of the environment. Not sure why you are calling proposals for increased flows “the state’s water grab” except that’s how opponents of living rivers have framed it. In this case, the state represents people who think fisheries, living rivers, ecological balance in the San Joaquin Delta and San Francisco Bay and multi-use are preferable to dominant use of a public resource by a bunch of nut farmers in the export business. Water is a public resource and the public has a right to be involved in decisions about its use.
The state has a bunch of people who have failed in the past. The state in this case is attempting to rewrite 100 + year old Senior Water rights. In addition, it is attempting to control water held in the dams. The public has a right to be involved and they are. But I dispute that the unelected board and state bureauacrats that run the State Water Resources Control Board are the public. I would like to see all those enviros in the SF Bay Area when we cut off water to their Bay Area McMansions.
Eric Caine says
West Sider: All those enviros in the SF Bay Area have you outnumbered and have their own water rights. McMansions are a Valley phenomenon.
West Sider says
mcMansions are a Bay Area phenomenon too. Just take a drive thru Pleasanton, Livermore, and the rest of the East Bay. That fact that those in Bay Area outnumber us does not concern me. That is why we have water rights in this state. The curtailment cases that began in 2015 will be heard in Santa Clara County court this coming December. Hopefully we will get a ruling on this issue. Felicia Marcus, the SWRCB chair stated she wanted to see this legal issue decided by the court, yet the SWRCB lawyers spent months trying to get these issues dismissed using absurd arguments that the court ultimately found preposterous and is allowing the case to move forward.
I do in part agree with you about groundwater, especially giant wells being drilled in the oakdale foothills outside of water districts. I believe Jim DeMartini has called for a ban on those type of wells. On the other hand, the SWRCB proposal points out under its plan that well water use will be increased under its plan, permanently, and relies on that water in its plan to mitigate the damage its plan will do the local economy.