Back Forty: Hard truths about California’s water future

Crops grow amid dry land on Thursday, June 17, 2021, near Sanger, California, in Fresno County. AP Photo/Noah Berger.

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By Teresa Cotsirilos

Last month, Jay Lund, a distinguished professor of civil and environmental engineering at UC Davis, wrapped up a lecture on California’s drought with a slide titled, “Resistance is Futile.” It included a list of his predictions about the state’s water crisis, some of which bordered on apocalyptic. As climate change fuels extreme drought, heat and flooding, Lund explained, some of California’s native species will become unsustainable in the wild. Farmers, government agencies and environmental groups will continue to fight over dwindling water supplies. In the San Joaquin Valley, farmers could be forced to fallow 40 percent of their land. “These things will happen,” says Lund, who has been studying California’s water situation for over 30 years. “I don’t see anybody being willing to spend enough money to completely reverse these trends.” 

I spoke with Lund recently about his predictions. Our conversation focused on the San Joaquin Valley, which is one of the most productive agricultural regions in the world. Historic drought has jeopardized many farmers’ water access, and they’ve increasingly relied on groundwater instead. Many farmers have been over-pumping aquifers for years, and a new state law might finally put a stop to it, restricting agricultural water even further. Farming has also wreaked havoc on California ecosystems, and environmental groups are fighting the industry’s diversion of water from rivers and reservoirs in an effort to save salmon and other native fish. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

You’ve stated that between 500,000 and 2 million acres of farmland will need to be fallowed in the San Joaquin Valley for agriculture to remain sustainable. What kinds of policies could California develop in response to this scenario?

I think what you’ll probably see is that the price of water in the valley is going to go up. And if the price goes up, that water’s going to go to the most profitable crops. So the lower-value crops will go out of production. The nice thing, from the statewide perspective, is the land going out of production is the least productive, right? For the most part, the crops that produce the most profit also produce the most jobs for people. So the statewide economic impact of this fallowing should be fairly small, and the jobs impact might only be on the order of 10,000 jobs. The state economy has 15 million jobs, so this is not doom for the state of California.

It is doom for some of those rural communities; the rural economies of the state are never the richest ones. To me, it’s a bit like you have a mining industry and the ore is being depleted. What do you do with that mining town in the long term? The state would have some interest in finding a new economic base for some of those towns, and where that’s not possible, invest in the education system in those towns so kids have some place to go, or so the town can attract new industries. Whatever’s going to work.

The counties and farmers will have some really interesting challenges. What happens with that fallowed land? Some of it could go into solar panels, but not nearly all of it. What happens to the rest? You’d like to make it into wildlife habitat, but it’s got to be dry land wildlife habitat, which is going to require some maintenance for fire control, pest management, things like that. And maintenance takes money. If it’s not being farmed, who’s going to be responsible for that land?

You’ve said that increased nitrate contamination in the valley’s groundwater is inevitable, which is terrible news for the drinking water supply. The agriculture sector is pretty much entirely to blame for this—nitrates seep into the water table from nitrogen fertilizer, or manure. Couldn’t well-enforced regulation prevent this contamination?

Let’s say that by magic, somehow, no new nitrate contamination was added to the aquifers. Even if we had perfectly tight regulations on nitrogen fertilizer and its use, there’s so much nitrate already in the groundwater that we would still have a considerable problem. The pumping of groundwater from the wells now is causing this very extensive nitrate load that’s already in the aquifers to spread. And so the nitrates that we’re seeing in people’s wells now might have been first applied to the soils in the 1940s or ’50s.

You’ve also predicted that some native species will likely be unable to adapt to climate change.

That’s right. I think the delta smelt is certainly on that path, and I’m very worried about some of the salmon runs.

In a recent lecture, you gave California a ‘D’ for its environmental response to the drought thus far. Why has the state struggled to address this?

That’s really the hardest issue of all. In all of those ecosystems that are not performing as well as we would like, the biggest policy problems are getting local communities and state agencies organized, and developing a business model to fund effective conservation.

The cities are pretty well organized, they are pretty well-funded. But at the other end of the spectrum are the rural communities and ecosystems. Those are not well-organized groups. Rural communities have a lot of other problems, they don’t have a lot of money, and it’s hard for them to address daunting, complex challenges like this. Maintaining ecosystems is even more difficult because the climate is changing, and it’s not clear that some of the species will be able to thrive even if we gave them our all. So there’s a really difficult philosophical question: What kind of sustainable environment can we have? What kind of sustainable environment do we want, given the limitations of our effort? 

I sometimes wonder whether we should be growing food in California at all. The state’s agricultural industry consumes more than 80 percent of the water that’s allocated for human use. In return, it has jeopardized salmon and other native species by siphoning water from the rivers they depend on, and it’s wreaked havoc on some rural communities by contaminating their air and water supplies.  

California has a wonderful climate for growing the kinds of specialty crops that people want globally—almonds, grapes, fresh vegetables. We’d like to have more water to do that. We should probably reduce some of the land that we devote to it. But I think even under very environmentally-oriented policies, at least 50 percent of the irrigated acreage that you’ve got [in the state] today would still be there. You’d like to change the way agriculture is done so you have more environmental benefits, but if you got rid of agriculture entirely you would still need to invest a fair bit of money to manage that land. You’ve got so many invasive species and other environmental changes going on, like wildfires. And under the right circumstances, the farmers do a pretty good job of managing the land in order to make some money. Which in turn supports rural economies. Rural areas have a lot of problems with poverty and you don’t want to make it any worse.