SAN JOSE – The water spigots on California farms will soon be twisted tighter.
As the state faces a growing threat from drought, an increasing number of water agencies are planning to require flow meters on agricultural wells, part of a landmark effort to measure and constrain pumping that used to be free and unlimited. It’s a controversial step aimed at protecting water supplies that could change cultivation practices in the Golden State’s thirsty fields.
“It’s hard to be as efficient as possible if you don’t know how much water you’re using,” said Sierra Ryan, interim water resources manager for Santa Cruz County.
Under the state’s tough new groundwater protection law, “we now have a legal obligation to manage our groundwater sustainably,” she said. “And we cannot manage the basin with such large uncertainties in our water use.”
The new approach is a major shift. Since California’s early rough-and-tumble frontier days, the ability to pump water from a private well on personal property has been an agricultural birthright. If you owned the land, the thinking went, you owned the water under it. So while cities charge residents based on the amount of water they use, rural well owners did not need to report – or measure – their pumping.
Even as aquifers drained, causing the land to sink and seawater to intrude, “well meters” were fighting words. The only way for officials to gauge pumping was to take aerial photos or track electricity consumption.
But the 2014 Sustainable Groundwater Management Act – SGMA, pronounced “sigma” – changes all that. It was adopted during the state’s last devastating drought, when farmers relied on their wells for survival and pumped from aquifers like never before.
The law asserts that groundwater is a shared resource. While it upholds a farmer’s right to pump, it imposes rules on its use. For the first time in California history, managers of the state’s 140 most overdrawn groundwater basins must balance the amount of water being pumped from, and recharged into, aquifers by 2040. It allows increased pumping during drought only if no major problems result.
Managers of the most imperiled aquifers submitted their sustainability plans in January 2020. Santa Cruz County, for instance, aims to protect its groundwater in a multi-part plan of metering, conservation and recycling. In the Salinas Valley, basin managers also will require metering.
And in some of the state’s most-troubled groundwater basins, water managers are not only metering farmers’ water use but charging them for it.
Pajaro Valley – a landscape of soft fog, ocean breezes and a multimillion-dollar agricultural industry – was one of the earliest adopters of metering. With no surface sources, nearly all of its water comes from the ground. Starting in the 1950s, so much water was drawn from wells that the water table plummeted, permitting seawater to seep in. In the 1980s, the state authorized that Pajaro Valley Water Management Agency to take protective steps.
Now 900 water meters – green cylinders, smaller than a soccer ball – are welded onto well pipes among vast fields of lettuce, artichokes and plump strawberries.
This effort, combined with other measures, has reduced annual groundwater use by 7.8%, on average, between two five-year periods: 2006 to 2010 and 2015 and 2019, according to the agency. A recent U.S. Geological Survey analysis found the water table is generally stable, and there’s no evidence of land sinking due to groundwater extraction.
“Metering tells us if we’re going in the right direction or in the wrong direction,” said Brian Lockwood, the agency’s general manager. “Hopefully, it allows people to think about water use in a different way.”
The new state law bolsters its case, he said. “Prior to the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, it was always like walking up a sand dune – one step up, and then half step back,” said Lockwood. “Now, we’re not alone in needing to achieve sustainable resources. It’s every groundwater basin in California.”
Every day, staffers span the Pajaro Valley, sometimes hiking miles through the mud or fog to read flow rates and consumption at 40 to 80 different sites. In the future, the agency aims to use telemetry, so data can be viewed from the comfort of an office.
Growers are billed $246 an acre-foot, the equivalent of an acre of water one foot deep. In four years, fees will jump to $346. Those who allow their property to be flooded with stormwater, helping replenish the aquifer, can earn rebates. The agency also offers inducements, such as efficiency gadgets and incentives to fallow land.
A handful of farms have refused access; their bills are estimated, with stiff penalties added.
The agency’s data is shared with farmers to help guide their irrigation practices. The agency also notes which crops are being grown, so it can build an accurate model of the region’s changing land-use patterns – essential for long-term water planning.
“I think it’s worked out pretty well for everybody,” said Dick Peixoto, owner of the 3,000-acre Lakeside Organic Gardens in Watsonville, which produces 45 different types of organic vegetables.
But there’s sticker shock, said Peixoto, who estimates he pays nearly $1 million a year for water that used to be free. In Southern California, nut producer Mojave Pistachios says its fees are so high – $2,130 per acre-foot of water – that it may be forced to abandon a $35 million investment in trees.
“It’s not unusual for us to have between 30 to 40 bills for water show up on the same day, in a big brown manila envelope,” representing each of his wells, said Peixoto. “That’s a hard check to sign.”
Among the old-timers, there’s still lingering resistance, he said. “A lot of people think ‘Hey, we own the land, we own the water.’”
“It alters the balance of your economic equation as a farmer,” said Chris Scheuring, a Yolo County tree farmer and attorney for the California Farm Bureau Federation. “And there’s always opportunities for overzealous control of a resource by folks who want to have a say about how farmers use water.”
“Even the most mild-mannered farmers are not particularly happy about some new white government pickup truck driving onto your property,” he said.
But as California faces a long dry future, Scheuring predicted growing acceptance of water accountability in the state’s most imperiled basins.
“Sustainable groundwater management,” he said, “is now the law of the land.”