Even if you’ve never heard of California’s San Joaquin Valley, you’ve likely benefited from its existence. Its nut groves, fruit and vegetable fields, and industrial-scale dairy operations contribute mightily to the US food supply. So it’s bad news for eaters that the valley has emerged in recent decades as a site of intensifying climate chaos; it’s reeling under the pressure of record heat, wildfire smoke, and its second historic drought in a decade.
It’s even worse news for people who make the valley their home. Right now, many are worried about access to one of life’s necessities: drinking water.
As of September 21, 700 residential wells have come up dry throughout the state this year, up 724 percent compared with the same period of 2020. The great bulk of them are in agriculture-dominated San Joaquin Valley counties like Tulare, Fresno, and Madera. The trend marks a grim rerun of the previous drought of 2012–2016, when residents of several towns including East Porterville, Okieville, and Tombstone saw their wells go dry.
Marliez Diaz works at the bleeding edge of the region’s water woes. Based in Visalia, California, in the heart of the valley, Diaz is the water sustainability manager at Self-Help Enterprises, a nonprofit community-development organization that provides emergency water services to residents whose wells fail. “Our services are much needed right now,” Diaz says. “We are swamped.”
When people run out of drinking water, the group trucks 2,500-gallon tanks to their homes, hooking them up to pipes so water flows through taps. Self-Help returns to refill tanks as needed. (The rule of thumb: Each resident consumes about 50 gallons per day.) As of September 20, the group was managing 585 of these tanks throughout the valley—up from 450 a month earlier and more than ever before, including during the height of last decade’s historic drought.
Of course, 2,500-gallon tanks plumbed into individual homes are a stop-gap measure. Many people who have lost water require new wells—an expensive and drawn-out process. Well-drilling companies are experiencing the triple hit of spiking demand for their services, the need to drill deeper to find a stable water source, and a labor shortage. As a result, “well drillers are backed up eight to nine months,” Diaz says. And the cost of new wells has spiked, putting a massive financial burden on low-income families. “It’s crazy. We used to be able to drill a [residential] well for $20,000—now we can’t drill anything for less than $40,000.”
The cost isn’t the only problem. The majority of the valley’s 4 million residents rely on wells dug into the same aquifers that have been overtapped for decades by agricultural interests—
and that are being furiously exploited to irrigate crops as other water sources have dried up due to the drought.
Irrigating the valley’s farms takes 89 percent of the region’s water (compared to just 3 percent for residents). Embedded in what’s essentially a desert, San Joaquin’s vast agriculture industry relies on two sources for this liquid sustenance: snowmelt from the Sierra Nevada mountain range that forms the state’s eastern spine, and underground aquifers that have developed over millennia. Farm operations receive the great bulk of the melted snow, shunted through a complex of dams, canals, and aqueducts. But because of climate change, the annual Sierra Nevada snowpack has shown a declining trend for years—and will likely dwindle further over the next several decades, a growing body of research suggests.
So farmers have increasingly tapped underground aquifers, so voraciously that in swaths of the valley, the land is sinking at rates as high as a foot per year as water vanishes, a phenomenon known as subsidence. Community and residential wells, meanwhile, tend to be shallow compared with agricultural ones—meaning they go dry more rapidly than those that irrigate the almond and pistachio groves that surround towns. They largely serve people who have spent their lives making the region’s farms hum, says Nayamin Martinez, executive director of the Central California Environmental Justice Network: Latino farmworkers and their families, and in many cases retired farmworkers living on tiny incomes. “These people are falling through the cracks,” she says. “You can be without some other resources, but without water, what are you gonna do?”
“Every human being has the right to safe, clean, affordable, and accessible water adequate for human consumption, cooking, and sanitary purposes,” stated a California law that Gov. Jerry Brown signed in 2012. In the nine years since, under pressure from drought and Big Ag’s insatiable thirst for irrigation, the nation’s only “human right to clean water” law has too often been honored in the breach in the San Joaquin Valley. In pockets throughout the region, the water that runs through people’s taps is laced with agriculture toxins like nitrates and pesticides, as well as with arsenic, a naturally occurring chemical that concentrates as aquifers empty out. The burden falls hardest on heavily Latino farmworker communities, whose residents often have to spend significant portions of their income buying bottled water to avoid poison while also facing exorbitant home water bills to run showers and wash dishes.
Many communities depend on public water systems that are reliant on wells dug into aquifers. Back in June, household taps in the Tulare County town of Teviston (population 700) suddenly went dry after the community well stopped working. As the summer heat intensified, with temperatures climbing well above 100 degrees daily, the outage lasted three weeks, forcing residents to rely on bottled water “for necessities such as staying hydrated, cooking, bathing and flushing toilets,” Cal Matters reported. While the apparent cause was mechanical failure—old, crumbling drinking-water infrastructure also haunts the region—Teviston’s plight looks a lot like the future for hundreds of low-income communities throughout the drought-plagued area.
The dire situation persists, despite an unprecedented legislative effort, completed during the height of the previous drought, to address the region’s water crisis. In 2014, the California legislature broke a long tradition of refusing to regulate groundwater by passing a law called the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, designed to end what had become a race to the bottom of the state’s aquifers. By the law’s assessment, aquifers under the entire San Joaquin Valley were declared “critically over-drafted.” As a result, each sub-basin was required to form a Groundwater Sustainability Agency (GSA) and develop a plan to bring its aquifers into balance by 2040.
In theory, the law required that the kind of routine agricultural overpumping that has held sway for decades, depleting aquifers throughout the valley, would have to stop. As part of their plans, the GSAs have to propose what’s called a “minimum threshold,” defined as the deepest groundwater level an aquifer can reach before it’s so overdrafted that it triggers “undesirable results,” including significantly degraded water quality and a drastic reduction in storage capacity. Essentially, the GSAs are charged with determining how low the aquifers can go over the next 20 years before restrictions on Big Ag’s groundwater pumping kick in. The plans have been submitted to the California Department of Water Resources, which has until January 2022 to evaluate them.
What has become increasingly clear, as the draft proposals have surfaced in recent months, is that if they’re approved as is, they’ll likely generate misery throughout the valley.
A June 2021 analysis of the draft plans by Pacific Institute, a California-based water think-tank, spells out why. Researcher Darcy Bostic analyzed the sustainability plans submitted to the water resources department by 31 of the valley’s GSAs. Comparing current well depths with those minimum thresholds, the study found that 503 of the valley’s 1,200 public-supply wells—more than 40 percent, supplying more than 1 million people—will likely go partially or fully dry under the plans by 2040.
And these risks are tightly correlated with income. The study found that communities with median annual household incomes of less than $50,000 are twice as likely to have “extremely vulnerable” water systems than those with median incomes exceeding $75,000.
As the run on Self Help Enterprise’s emergency water services confirms, residential wells —which also tend to be clustered in low-income Latino communities—also face peril from the plans. A recent report from the California-based Water Foundation found that under the minimum thresholds proposed in the GSA plans, between 4,000 and 12,000 private wells would go dry, affecting between 46,000 and 127,000 people. It would cost between $88 million to $359 million to restore their access to drinking water, the report found.
These findings will not come as a surprise to California’s policymakers. “The communities most impacted by drinking water challenges during the last drought were small and rural; many were farmworker communities” in the San Joaquin Valley, a May 2021 report from the state’s Legislative Analyst’s Office warned. “Moreover, many of the communities that lost—or remain vulnerable to losing—access to safe drinking water contain high proportions of both lower‑income and Latino residents.”
In short, the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act has generated a bunch of sustainability plans that essentially condemn more than 1 million people to an already-transpiring water nightmare over the next 20 years. In doing so, they run counter to the state’s explicitly stated human right to clean water. They also contradict the act itself, which decreed that the GSAs “shall consider the interests of all beneficial uses and users of groundwater,” specifically naming “domestic well owners,” “public water systems,” and “disadvantaged communities, including, but not limited to, those served by private domestic wells or small community water systems.”
In practice, the GSAs have so far mostly devoted themselves to serving the biggest users of all: farmers and ranchers.
Kristin Dobbin, a postdoctoral fellow at UCLA’s Luskin Center for Innovation, studied community involvement in implementing the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act for her dissertation. She found that the process largely lacked participation from small disadvantaged communities, and even when residents did get involved, their concerns were often dismissed. For her research, she interviewed about 40 residents from across the valley on their experiences in the GSA process. “They often reported that they were told—or got the sense—that SGMA didn’t have anything to do with drinking water, that such concerns were beyond the scope of the law,” she says. But the SGMA explicitly requires the GSAs to preserve access to drinking water. Dobbin adds that many of the plans ended up reproducing the valley’s longstanding power relations, wherein agricultural interests dominate and community members have to organize and fight to be heard.
The California Department of Water Resources has until January 2022 to approve the plans or send them back for revision. There’s some hope that the DWR could intervene on behalf of the San Joaquin Valley’s water-vulnerable communities, says Justine Massey, policy manager and attorney for the Community Water Center, which advocates for water justice in the valley. She notes that back in April, Gov. Gavin Newsom issued an executive order calling on state agencies to develop “principles and strategies to monitor, analyze, and minimize impacts to drinking water wells.” The principles, released in draft form in August and scheduled to be finalized this month, “arguably should influence the Department of Water Resources’ decisions on the GSAs,” Massey says. “We’ll see.”
So far the agency has responded to just four of the plans it has received, all of them outside the valley.
Farmers, meanwhile, have a strong interest in maintaining the status quo: making sure that the minimum thresholds established in the GSAs give them as much leeway as possible to continue pumping. As the water resources available to them decline, they have for decades scrambled to plant the most lucrative crops with robust overseas markets in an effort to maximize profit per drop of irrigation. As I noted in this 2015 article, written at the height of the previous drought, almonds and pistachios fit that bill, and the region’s land owners have invested hundreds of millions of dollars to establish orchards, in place of less profitable crops like vegetables, fruit, and cotton. Nut trees have taken the valley by storm over the past 30 years, as this chart by UC Davis researchers shows.
But unlike row crops, which farmers can choose not to plant during droughts like the current one, nut trees must be irrigated no matter what—fallowing them would mean the loss of massive investment and a future income stream, not just a year’s sales. Keeping orchards humming during droughts commands enormous amounts of water, meaning less for communities. As this chart by researchers from the nonpartisan think-tank the Public Policy Institute of California shows, groundwater overdraft has risen in parallel with the nut boom.
Martinez, of the Central California Environmental Justice Network, says that throughout the valley, the small towns where wells are going dry tend to be “surrounded on all sides by almond trees—and growers, in the middle of the drought, have the money to deepen wells by hundreds of feet.”
Ultimately, once the aquifers have been drained, the big companies and investors driving the nut boom can move on to other opportunities, she says. “What will happen to the people left behind without water? If your well is dry, are you going to be able to sell your house?” She adds, “People with low incomes don’t always have the luxury of being able to just move.”