Among the more persistent myths about water in the San Joaquin Valley, none is more durable than the canard that water shortages and land subsidence have been caused by, “an innumerable myriad of Endangered Species Act-related laws, mandates, opinions, rulings and settlements.” This latest addition to the catalogue of misinformation comes from Kristi Diener, in an OP/ED for the Modesto and Fresno Bee newspapers.
Diener, like everyone else who attempts to blame water shortages and subsidence on a “regulatory drought” runs into a logical cul-de-sac when she has to admit that “subsidence did not begin in 2014’s drought. It was an issue at least a century before.”
But if, as Diener says, environmental regulations are just a little over “two-and-a-half decades” in effect, what could have caused subsidence prior to the punitive effects of regulation?
The answer is simple: Overdrafting groundwater caused the subsidence. Who overdrafted the groundwater? Farmers and ranchers. Nothing complex here, but apologists for overuse of public resources really don’t like simple and obvious answers— that’s why they’re always trying to find ways around them.
Diener rightly argues that using surface water is far preferable to pumping groundwater, but wrongly concludes that reductions in surface water allocations for Valley farmers have left farmers with no choice but to pump groundwater. Fact is, farmers in the southern San Joaquin Valley have been overdrafting groundwater since they drained Tulare Lake, at one time the largest freshwater lake west of the Mississippi—they’ve been overdrafting groundwater since they used up the Kern and San Joaquin Rivers decades ago.
Diener writes that reduced allocations have been due to regulatory barriers without pointing out the allocations to farmers from the Central Valley Project and State Water project are based on contractual rights.
Contractual rights, also known as, “paper water,” are distinguished from “appropriative rights,” which are rights bestowed by the state decades back in the 20th century. Appropriative rights, most often designated as pre- or post-1914, carry far more legal authority than contractual rights because the contractual rights specify that allocations are based on yearly abundance and the state or federal government’s discretion.
Anyone with even a cursory knowledge of the history of irrigated agriculture in the San Joaquin Valley is familiar with the iconic photograph of USGS scientist Joe Poland showing the degree of land subsidence near Mendota from 1925 to 1977, well before effects from the Endangered Species Act could have affected water use in the Valley.
Diener claims that without water from northern California, farmers have been “forced” to pump groundwater. Fact is, they were “forced” to pump groundwater well before they started begging state and federal governments for even more water from up north, though “forced” is hardly an appropriate term when discussing the calculated risks all businesspeople must make before investing time and money.
Diverting water from the Central Valley’s major rivers, especially the Sacramento and San Joaquin, has wreaked environmental destruction in the San Joaquin Delta, decimated salmon runs, negatively impacted California fisheries, and had devastating effects on wetlands and wildlife throughout the Valley. In many places, intensive irrigation has also poisoned the soil, most notably in the scandalous case of the Kesterson National Wildlife Refuge.
According to Mark Arax in The Dreamt Land, farmers have increased irrigated acreage during every drought since the 1920s. Even during the drought of 2014-15, agribusinesses like Kern County’s Paramount Farms added over 70,000 acres of farmland to their already extensive holdings of pistachios, almonds and walnuts.
Adding acres of farmland and then begging the government for a water fix isn’t much different from speculating on a widget boom and then asking the government to buy up your overproduction. No one has ever forced farmers to pump groundwater. Instead, they’ve kept adding irrigated acreage whenever they could because they figured they could count on government bailing them out.
It’s almost as though they think we’re a socialist economy.