Small farmers wait for California’s groundwater hammer to fall

Farmers, large and small, are beginning to grapple with what California’s first major groundwater regulation program means for them. One by one, local sustainability plans are starting to go public. Many farmers expect to see cutbacks on pumping once the program is fully implemented in 2040.

Randy Fiorini walking in his walnut orchard
Randy Fiorini in his Merced County walnut orchard. Five years ago, the Fiorini home’s groundwater well ran dry. With groundwater limits likely to be on the way, he wonders if he’ll be able to continue to rely on a critical backstop during droughts. (Madison Pobis)

A black lab trots dutifully behind as Randy Fiorini proudly points out the drip irrigation lines running along the base of his walnut trees. The orchards sit on land first planted in 1907 when his grandfather established Fiorini Ranch a few miles outside of Delhi, California after relocating from Redondo Beach. A cement ditch carrying water from the Don Pedro Reservoir about 50 miles away runs alongside peach, almond, and walnut trees.

Back when the ranch was irrigated by flooding its fields, Fiorini would splash around with his childhood friend, Scott Severson, in the huge pools under the shade of the trees. Like Fiorini, Severson grew up to farm his family’s ranch nearby in Merced County.

Like most parts of the Central Valley, the Fiorini and Severson ranches in the Turlock Irrigation District used surface water when it was available, and pumped groundwater when it wasn’t. Two decades ago, Fiorini decided to use water more efficiently and switched from flooding to drip irrigation on his peach trees, tripling the production of cling peaches. His overall water use didn’t fall, and the years of reliance on groundwater took its toll. Five years ago, in the middle of a crippling drought, Fiorini’s domestic well pump no longer reached the shrinking groundwater aquifer.


Video Profile: Randy Fiorini, Third Generation Grower

“You don’t have enough water and you lose those trees, you’re gonna be sideways with the bank in a hurry.”

Fiorini switched from flooding to drip irrigation on his peach trees, tripling production but continuing his orchards’ reliance on groundwater.

Video: Madison Pobis/Bill Lane Center for the American West

His land is part of roughly five million irrigated acres in the San Joaquin Valley distributed over about 20,000 farms. As Fiorini’s domestic well ran dry, underscoring the speed at which this crucial resource was disappearing, the California legislature took action to end more than a century of freewheeling, unregulated groundwater use. In 2014, it approved the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act. Basin by basin, local areas had to create new agencies — called groundwater sustainability agencies, or GSAs — to manage the groundwater.

Now farmers, large and small, are beginning to grapple with what this means for them and their choice of crops. Many expect to see cutbacks on pumping once the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA) is fully implemented.

The groundwater basin underneath the ranches of Fiorini and Severson in Delhi is one of 48 in the state that is considered “high priority.” Its Groundwater Sustainability Agency, the West Turlock Subbasin GSA in Merced County, must submit plans by January 2022 that will bring it into a sustainable balance in two decades.


Map of California groundwater basins showing prioritization.

Map of California groundwater basins showing state prioritization levels. Click for interactive map. Geoff McGhee/Bill Lane Center for the American West

“Growers are starting to take notice,” said Scott Severson. “Some adapt much faster than others… And there’s a certain portion that will dig in and wait until the very end until they’re mandated what to do, and you know scream and yell about it the whole way.”

Chart: Groundwater use in wet vs dry years

Some farmers will find out their new limits soon. The state Department of Water Resources is already reviewing three sustainability plans. The sustainability agencies with authority over Al Rossini’s scattered farmland are responsible for two of California’s 21 critically overdrafted basins. Like Fiorini and Severson, Rossini’s family has farmed about 1,000 acres for generations. The Rossini acres are in both Merced and Stanislaus Counties; the relevant GSAs must submit their plans to the state at the end of this month.

What are farmers like these doing? Waiting. Most want their new GSAs to spell out precise limitations before hitting the brakes on production.

When they are told of the actual groundwater cutback requirements, they will face a reckoning. The Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) estimates that since 2003 the San Joaquin Valley has overdrafted an average of 2.4 million acre-feet of groundwater every year. (An acre-foot is about 326,000 gallons, or enough to supply water to two homes for a year.) Bringing California’s groundwater supplies into balance will require huge sacrifices from growers — some may see cutbacks as high as 50 percent on groundwater pumping. Farmers must also rethink which crops are worth keeping and how many acres can be sustained with limited water supplies.

Even under ideal conditions, the PPIC estimates that a minimum of 535,000 acres will need to stop producing crops by 2040, with landowners forfeiting billions of dollars in revenue. If new water supplies can’t be generated or redistributed, that number might be as high as 780,000 acres, according to Jelena Jezdimirovic, a research associate at the PPIC. “We kind of don’t take these numbers to be the absolute truth of what will happen,” she said, “but we want to show that, depending on how people want to implement this law, there is potential for better outcomes.”

Jezdimirovic said that it’s not all that surprising that most basins haven’t settled yet on firm allocation limits. Yet inevitably, land will come out of production and landowners will have to decide how — and how much — to fallow. The decisions of smaller family farmers may be wrenching, and they own a substantial portion of the land affected. In a 2017 PPIC report Jezdimirovic wrote that in the Central Valley, “farms with less than 500 acres of irrigated cropland account for a quarter of total irrigated acreage.”

A few farmers have acted already. Sarah Woolf Clark, a grower in the Westlands Water District, said her family operations had to cut production in 2009, when their surface water allocation dropped to zero. They reduced staff and eliminated equipment to scale back on two thirds of their property. They haven’t returned to full capacity, and are rotating lower-value row crops, diverting more water to their higher-value almonds and pistachios, and slowly divesting themselves of water-stressed areas.


Micro irrigation watering an almond orchard in Livingston, California in 2015. Most growers have already invested in more efficient methods of irrigation like these to increase yields

Micro irrigation watering an almond orchard in Livingston, California in 2015. Most growers have already invested in more efficient methods of irrigation like these to increase yields. Lance Cheung/USDA via Flickr


Many farmers must face the consequences of deciding to shift to permanent crops. Once planted, grapevines or nut trees must be watered, drought or no. The increasing dominance of high-value perennial crops — which now represent 45 percent of the production in the southern Central Valley, PPIC reports — makes it harder for San Joaquin Valley growers to plan for a future with less groundwater.

Field crops like alfalfa, corn, and grains return between $200 and $600 per acre-foot of water used. The profits are low, but the crops can be more easily rotated or those fields fallowed. But for growers like Rossini, whose vineyards produce grapes for Trader Joe’s popular “two-buck Chuck” wine, permanent crops can bring in as much as $2000 per acre-foot of water. How much of this harvest can continue once the cutbacks begin?


Video Profile: Al Rossini, Third Generation Grower

“Our company has spent over $3 million in water wells and development of irrigation systems to be able to farm our crops with the least amount of water possible.”

Al Rossini is a farmer with about 1,000 acres in Merced and Stanislaus Counties.

Video: Madison Pobis/Bill Lane Center for the American West

Most growers have already invested in more efficient methods of irrigation like drip lines and micro-sprinklers to increase yields. However, the PPIC notes that these methods can actually increase net water use as farmers intensify production on existing acreage.

Even in the West Turlock Subbasin, where overdraft isn’t yet critical, Scott Severson worries that small family growers will find it hard to resist the buyouts offered as corporate operations in critically stressed areas move to places where cutbacks may be more manageable. “Where is that point where small family farm or even you know, my kids or grandkids someday, it becomes to the point where they literally are offered enough money to get out.”

Central Valley farmland north of Sacramento

Central Valley farmland north of Sacramento. Bithead via Flickr


Could Farming Reductions Open an Opportunity for Environmental Conservation?

What to grow and where to grow it are the first questions. More follow: what to do with land you leave empty? Woolf Clark believes SGMA offers an opportunity to collaborate with the environmental community. As president of Water Wise, a consulting firm, she works with farmers to manage water projects and explain farmers’ positions to environmental experts. “SGMA has created this world that, like it or not, we’re all impacted by the regulations that are put forth,” she said.

The PPIC estimates that roughly 15 percent of the estimated 535,000 acres of land coming out of production could be used for habitat restoration. But there is hesitation about how much turning cropland into regions for species conservation can realistically help growers. Most of the land the state has acquired for this purpose was never farmed.

Erin Tennant, an environmental scientist with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife’s lands program, studies threatened and endangered species in desert areas that overlap with much of the Central Valley. Animals like the blunt-nosed leopard lizard, kit fox, and kangaroo rat thrive in dry upland habitats.

Top-priority areas usually border existing conservation easements, and even then, must have the right elements — from soil type to plant arrangements to food — for a species to return. “The easiest way to retire land is to connect to already conserved land,” said Tennant, “and hope that the species on the conserved land could simply move…”

Even if a parcel is perfectly positioned in a corridor with all the habitat boxes ticked, Tennant worries that economic returns will come too slowly for landowners losing the profits from farming. So they may be less likely to find conservation easements appealing. Also, the money farmers can earn is withheld until the state has evidence that target species are using it.

Environmentalists approached Al Rossini about the potential for tiger salamander habitat recovery on his land, but he wasn’t confident that the projects would succeed. Still, he thinks those partnerships can be productive in other ways. “The people that you don’t understand and you don’t quite get along with,” he said, “the best place for that person is next to you.”

For now, the process of converting active agricultural land for conservation is largely theoretical. “We’re purely in a mode of sit back and wait and see what happens,” Tennant said.


Video Profile: Scott Severson, Third Generation Grower

“We can all talk about what we think might happen, but nobody really knows for sure.”

Video: Madison Pobis/Bill Lane Center for the American West


Green Energy Could Bloom on Abandoned Farmland

What about wind and solar farms? Appealing in theory, but the PPIC report estimated such conversion, at best, would affect nine percent of the 535,000 dewatered acres. “There’ll be far more farm ground taken out in the next 20 years than the demand for solar,” said Jason Selvidge, a fifth generation grower with operations in the Rosedale-Rio Bravo and Semitropic water districts. Selvidge has consulted with both habitat-restoration groups and solar companies about potentially leasing land.

For the most part, he will adjust to new limitations by converting to higher value crops and dropping water-intensive, low-value crops like corn for dairy cattle. He anticipates that 15 to 20 percent of the current acreage in his operations could come out of production. But for many growers fully invested in permanent high-value crops, leaving orchards without water isn’t a viable option. “[If] you don’t have enough water and you lose those trees, you’re gonna be sideways with the bank in a hurry,” said Randy Fiorini.

Decreasing demand on groundwater is just one lever that can be used to respond to SGMA. Increasing the supply by refilling groundwater basins — the technical term is “recharging” — will play an important role in hitting the PPIC’s estimate of 535,000 fallowed acres.

Where to Find Additional Water Supplies? Banking Water Underground Could be a Start

The Rosedale-Rio Bravo water storage district, whose sandy soils are perfect for recharging water, holds water in underground banks and can have water districts or farmers “deposit” water in the water-bank accounts — or purchase credits for future water use — when prices are cheap, then store them until they need to pump from a well during a dry year.

The ability to lease land and trade water rights within local regions, and eventually between water districts, will enable farmers with permanent crops to be assured they will have the water they need to continue producing high-value, thirsty crops. Woolf Clark said systems like this are a good reason to avoid blanket solutions. Areas that can support recharge and groundwater storage shouldn’t necessarily adhere to strict water conservation practices.

Conservation, new renewable energy sites and water banking and trading are likely to expand around the Central Valley as cutbacks take hold.

Perhaps one of the most unsettling aspects of preparing for SGMA is trying to anticipate the unintended consequences. “One of the big problems is the potential for disease and pests,” Fiorini said. “If you’ve got an orchard [taken out of production] sitting next to an orchard that’s still in production, you’re making significant problems for the guy next to you who’s trying to keep going.” The law makes local agencies responsible for implementing the plans and managing groundwater in the decades to come, but it’s unclear who will deal with such issues.

Jezdimirovic of PPIC has noticed that time itself is an essential — and sparse — resource for small farmers planning ahead for SGMA. “Large farmers have practically dedicated staff that can participate in the SGMA process,” she said. Many immigrant farmers with small acreage in a single basin may not even be fully aware of the law until they are handed a mandate on groundwater pumping restriction.

The plans being submitted for critically overdrafted basins this month are just a baby step toward the decades-long process of implementing SGMA in California. “Time after time, and it’s been going on for a while but you see farms sold to the big corporations, the big farms, the investment groups,” said Jason Selvidge. “It’s just kind of one more straw on the camel’s back.” As small family growers look toward the future, they hope that groundwater sustainability doesn’t come at the cost of generational farming traditions.

“I live this business with a passion and I got four sons…and they’re involved in agriculture one way or the other,” said Rossini. “It’s a way of life and a heritage that you stay with.”

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Edited by Felicity Barringer and Geoff McGhee.

This story was republished from ’…& the West,’ a blog by the Bill Lane Center for the American West at Stanford University.