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The Hidden Victims of California's Drought

Disadvantaged rural communities and wildlife in California are already paying the price for the unsustainable water use on big farms and in cities.

by Doug Obegi
Sep 4 2015, 3:55pm

Photo by Michael Nelson/EPA

California is struggling through the fourth year of a historic drought. It has included the driest calendar year in the state's history (2013), and the year with the lowest snowpack in the state's history (2015). Because California is America's largest agricultural producer, the world's eighth largest economy, and home to fish and wildlife that are found nowhere else on Earth, California's response to drought could very well impact the entire world — and be a test run for a future in which climate change likely makes droughts more frequent and more severe.

Much of the focus of media coverage of California's drought has focused on the agriculture sector, which uses about 80 percent of the water used by humans in California. Although many farms have installed drip irrigation and improved their water-use efficiency in recent decades, nearly 50 percent of all the irrigated acreage in California still uses inefficient flood-and-furrow irrigation, in which fields are covered by standing water. And despite the drought, Wall Street investment firms and other corporations have bought up farmland and planted hundreds of thousands of acres in recent years, often planting almond orchards or other permanent crops on land that has never before been irrigated, relying ever more heavily on over-drafted groundwater supplies.

Related: California Wildfire Engulfs Freeway as Drones Delay Response Efforts

Indeed, in the midst of the drought, many California counties are reporting record agricultural revenues, farm labor has actually increased by some measures, and fruit and vegetable prices have generally remained steady. In short, California agriculture appears to be more resilient than the doom-and-gloom stories propagated by agribusinesses and their supporters in Congress.

Yet part of the reason for that resilience is that farmers — along with some cities — have dramatically increased groundwater pumping. The VICE News documentary Flooding Fields in California's Drought — watch it below — shows that while groundwater pumping has reduced the potential economic impacts of the drought in the near term, it also comes at a huge cost.

In places like East Porterville, Fairmead, and other rural disadvantaged communities, households have seen their drinking water wells dry up completely as farmers dramatically increase groundwater pumping and those with the money dig ever-deeper wells in a race to the bottom. In some cases, the same day that groundwater pumps were turned on for new orchards and farmlands, drinking water wells dried up completely. NASA reports that groundwater is being depleted from the San Joaquin Valley at such high rates that the ground is sinking at a rate of 2 inches per month in a process known as subsidence. This is causing roads and canals to buckle, causing hundreds of millions of dollars (or more) in damages to public infrastructure.

Watch VICE News' 'Flooding Fields in California's Drought.'

The depletion of groundwater reserves in the state is also threatening the ability to respond to future droughts and ensure safe drinking water in the future, as these groundwater levels may never completely rebound. In some cases, the groundwater being pumped has taken thousands or tens of thousands of years to accumulate.

What's more, extensive lobbying by agribusiness has led to waivers of the minimum environmental protections for fish and wildlife in California's rivers and streams, driving some salmon runs and other native fish and wildlife to the brink of extinction so that farmers and cities can divert even more water during the drought. As a result, the director of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife warned that the state's commercial and recreational salmon fishery may have to be closed and a fishery disaster declared in the next few years. Despite this, agribusinesses continue to lobby Congress to overturn state and federal environmental laws so that they can divert even more water from our rivers and streams, going so far as to advocate for permanently drying up the state's second-longest river, the San Joaquin.

These hidden victims of California's drought — disadvantaged rural communities and California's native fish and wildlife populations — are suffering because of unsustainable water use by farms and cities. But it doesn't have to be that way. Despite all the depressing news of the drought, there is some hope on the horizon. Last year, the state enacted the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, making California the last state in the nation to require local and statewide management of groundwater resources. While the law is intended to force an end to unsustainable groundwater pumping, the law will not fully come into effect for several decades. Governor Jerry Brown recently indicated the need to do more to protect and manage groundwater more aggressively.

Last year, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and the Pacific Institute released our Untapped Potential report, documenting how improved water management through improved agricultural and urban efficiency, water recycling, and urban stormwater capture can create millions of acre feet of new, sustainable water supplies that would actually exceed the average groundwater overdraft in California in recent years. Over the last several months, urban residents have stepped up to meet the state's mandatory urban water conservation requirements. These efforts saved more than 180,000 acre feet of water in the month of June alone, which is more water in a single month than the average annual yield of two environmentally destructive new dams proposed on the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers. Newly adopted standards for water efficient shower heads and other fixtures and appliances have the potential to save even more water in the future, and help demonstrate how small improvements in efficiency and conservation add up.

Related: The Value of Water on the West Coast — And Why California Is So Screwed

Although Charles Fishman, author of The Big Thirst, recently concluded in the New York Times that California is winning the drought, that's not true for California's environment, groundwater supplies, or rural disadvantaged communities. It will take far more public attention and public pressure to ensure that the state's economy and environment can continue to thrive. Since fruits and vegetables grown in California are eaten across the nation and the world, and since people come from far and wide to marvel at and enjoy the natural beauty of California, we all have a vested interest in helping ensure that the state's water use remains sustainable.

Doug Obegi is a senior attorney in the water program at the NRDC, where he works on water management and the protection of fish and wildlife in California.

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