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Why People in the State’s Breadbasket Are Being Deprived of The ‘Human Right’ to Water

There are many causes contributing to this crisis. And as you may already know, this situation really is nuts.

PUBLISHED SEPTEMBER 27, 2021
Water is a human right under California law, but it doesn’t always work out that way.
Water is a human right under California law, but it doesn’t always work out that way. Joseph Sohm / Shutterstock   Shutterstock Standard License

Access to water is a human right. At least it is in California, where a bill signed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown on Sept. 25, 2012, put it down in print. “It is hereby declared to be the established policy of the state that every human being has the right to safe, clean, affordable, and accessible water adequate for human consumption, cooking, and sanitary purposes.”

Assembly Bill 685, sometimes called the “Human Right to Water Act” made California the first state to legally establish the human right to water. In June of 2021, the 881 residents of the San Joaquin Valley town of Teviston had that human right violated when their town well went dry. The people of Teviston, about three of every four of whom are Latinx and mostly farmworkers, were left without water for more than three weeks, a crisis at any time. But this time it struck in the middle of a record-setting heat wave with temperatures topping 110 degrees.

Human right or not, the state was no help, according to Tulare County’s water resources director, Denise England, who told the news site SJV Water that government red tape held up funds for emergency drinking water, and trucks hauling in bottled water were forced by state rules to take a circuitous route that delayed the badly needed deliveries.

Though essential, the water deliveries were far from good enough. One resident told Fresno’s KFSN-TV News that her family received five gallons every two weeks in a household of four people. 

Water Shortages Hit Hard in Poverty Stricken Areas

By contrast, the “water footprint” of the region’s top-growing crop, almonds, equals 12 liters, or 3.2 gallons of water for each almond, according to a 2017 study published by the journal Ecological Indicators. That’s considerably more than the commonly cited figure of one gallon per almond, popularized in a 2015 Mother Jones magazine article.

The water shortages in Tulare County and throughout the San Joaquin Valley hit hardest at those who can least afford to be hit. Teviston’s poverty rate was about 35 percent in 2020. Tulare County’s poverty rate of 19 percent, according to California Poverty Measure data from 2015-2017, ranked it as the fourth most poverty-stricken county in the state.

The San Joaquin Valley feeds much of California and the United States. California provides about 13 percent of the country’s food supply (measured by gross cash receipts), with a significant share grown in the San Joaquin Valley. The tiny unincorporated town of Teviston sits in the heart of Tulare County, the second-largest agriculture-producing county in California (measured by 2017 gross revenues). Though as it turned out, Teviston’s dry well was caused by a mechanical failure, it was otherwise not too different from the remainder of the region. In the middle of the state’s “megadrought,” which incredibly is the second-worst in 1,200 years, according to a Columbia University study using tree-ring data going all the way back to the year 800 CE, more than 700 wells throughout California went dry. And Tulare County was hit harder than anywhere.

According to the state’s Household Water Supply Shortage Reporting System, which collects self-reported incidents of dry water supplies from homes served by private wells (state-regulated water systems are not included in the reports), as of Sept. 23, 2021, there were 3,498 reports of dry well incidents in California. Of those, 1,469, 42 percent, were from Tulare County.

The second driest county, in terms of the HWSSRS reports, was Madera, also located in the San Joaquin Valley, which reported 443 well-water outages, 13 percent of the state total. The water shortages are sadly familiar occurrences in the San Joaquin Valley. From 2014 to 2016, the unincorporated community of East Porterville with a population of about 5,500 went without running water, until finally some homes there were hooked up to the new municipal water system in the neighboring city of Porterville. 

Severe water shortages remain in East Porterville. The adjacent city’s water system planned to have three wells up and running that would serve East Porterville’s residents. But by mid-2021 only one of those wells was operative. East Porterville’s homes were mostly connected to the system, but the water was not flowing.

The demographics of East Porterville are largely the same as in Teviston. Almost 80 percent of the residents are Latinx, with approximately 41 percent earning incomes below the federal poverty line, compared to the national average of 14 percent. 

The Vicious Cycle of ‘Subsidence’

Not only is water for the valley’s residents in dangerously short supply, about 20 percent of community water systems there are in violation of safety standards, according to a report by the Pacific Institute.

Why have the people of the San Joaquin Valley suffered so disproportionately from California’s drought? The agricultural industry that forms a large part of the valley’s economy is by far the region’s most voracious water consumer. According to a Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) report, agriculture and its related industries account for 25 percent of the region’s revenue, and 16 percent of the jobs there—while guzzling 89 percent of the water. 

Actual residents of the valley consume just 3 percent of the region’s water, according to the PPIC. And yet, their wells go dry with alarming frequency, at least in part because the water requirements of the agricultural industry deplete the groundwater supply by about 1.8 million acre-feet per year, with one acre-foot equalling 326,000 gallons.

That process, known as groundwater overdraft, leads to another dangerous phenomenon called “subsidence.” A simpler term is just “sinking.” With the groundwater supply drained, the surface of the Earth quite literally sinks. In the South Valley town of Corcoran, to cite one example, the ground dropped by more than two feet in the 2011-2015 drought alone.

When the surface sinks, so do rivers and canals which flow into systems that supply homes with water. As they sink, their capacity to deliver water also drops. The Friant-Kern Canal, designed to deliver water to about 250,000 people and one million acres of farmland, has dropped about 10 feet due largely to overdraft caused by farm businesses, according to a Frenso Bee report. The drop resulted in the canal losing half of its capacity to deliver water.

The December 2020 federal COVID relief package included $206 million earmarked to repair the canal, but engineers say that the job will take more than twice that much cash, the Bee reported.

The subsidence phenomenon leads to a vicious cycle of groundwater pumping. With diminished water delivery due to sinking land caused by overpumping, farmers just pump more water out of the ground to make up for the shortfall, causing even greater overdraft, and more subsidence. And so on.

The Voracious Water Consumption of Almonds

The trend toward growing lucrative nut crops, and away from standard fruits and vegetables, also exacerbates the problem. In 2017, almonds surpassed grapes as the San Joaquin Valley’s top crop. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, water-intensive almond orchards now cover 1.6 million acres of California farmland.

The full gallon of water generally said to be required for each almond is three times as much as it takes to grow a grape, and about 25 percent of the water required for a whole head of lettuce. Using the figure of 3.2 gallons per almond found by the 2017 Ecological Indicators study, the contrast is even more stark.

Another nut, walnuts, ranked fourth among the valley’s most prolifically grown crops. Growing walnuts consumes about one-third the water needed for almonds, according to the study. In fact, nuts of any variety are a water-intensive crop. According to the European Union Science Hub, 74 percent of all the nut crops in the world are grown in water-stressed environments, as is the case in California.

Farmland Uprooted as Almond Prices Drop

Farmers say that though almonds are prodigious water consumers, they also generate a lot of money, a higher rate of return per gallon than most other crops. Yet in the San Joaquin Valley, even farmers are beginning to feel the effects of water stress. In April 2021, as study by the consulting firm Land IQ and the Almond Board of California found that farmers had already scrapped almost 48,000 acres of orchards, including more than 1,800 in Tulare County, almost 1,700 in San Joaquin County, 5,300 in Stanislaus County and more than 7,000 in Fresno County.

While the study did not address how many of those almond trees were uprooted due to the economics of water, prices of almonds have been falling since 2017 when relatively plentiful rainfall brought a temporary end to the acute drought that had existed in the state for more than half-a-decade. As water became easier to obtain, almond production and therefore supply went up, driving prices down. Where farmers had been  pulling in $5 per pound prior to 2017, by 2020 the price fell below two bucks, according to reporting by the Sacramento Bee

But according to the Bee report, some farmers are still growing almonds and holding on to their crop, anticipating that the current drought will drive prices back up. Which to some extent it already has, with the per-pound price tag expected to hit $2.50 in 2021. And in recent years, California farmers are planting more and more pistachios, another thirsty nut, often on acreage that formerly produced crops such as cotton, which can be fallowed in dry years.

Farmers Will Pay the Price for Groundwater Overpumping

It isn’t entirely fair to pin the San Joaquin Valley’s water shortage solely on nut growers and other agribusiness enterprises. The factors that caused current water shortages are numerous and extraordinarily complicated. But the side-by-side images of residents living below the poverty line trying to survive on a pitcher of water per day as their wells dry up, and farmers pumping millions of gallons out of the ground to grow nuts in the very same valley is not a good look, to say the least.

In the end, it appears that deservedly or not, farmers will pay the price for the region’s, and the state’s, draining of the water supply. In 2014, the state legislature passed, and Gov. Brown signed, a landmark package of bills, known collectively as the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA). The major provision of the new law required local governments and water districts in areas where groundwater has been significantly drained to set up Groundwater Sustainability Agencies whose responsibility is to get the groundwater level back to normal, or at least to “sustainable” levels.

In other words, the amount of water pumped out of the ground must be the same as or less than the amount that goes back in.

Most of the state’s “critically overdrafted” groundwater basins lie in the San Joaquin Valley, according to a PPIC report. 

Under the law, more than 260 GSAs were formed throughout the state, each one required to come up with a plan for achieving sustainability by the year 2040. There’s now way that goal will be possible to meet without farmers cutting back on their water use. That means, as the PPIC stated, “idling some farmland” will be inevitable. 

“Some” could mean up to one million acres in the Central Valley, according to a report by SJV Water. Most of that will come from the San Joaquin Valley region. A PPIC study puts the figure between 535,000 and 750,000 acres of farm that will be lost—at least 10 percent of all the farmland in the region.

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