Home Restaurant Will California’s New Groundwater Rules Hurt Small-Scale Farms and Farmers of Color?

Will California’s New Groundwater Rules Hurt Small-Scale Farms and Farmers of Color?

Annie Main has always known water, or the lack of it, loomed as the greatest threat to Good Humus, her 30-acre farm in rural northern California in an area known as Hungry Hollow. Located west of Sacramento at the base of hills that turn crisp and golden each summer, she and her husband, Jeff, have been growing organic apricots, vegetables, flowers, and herbs for nearly 40 years on land that relies on a well for irrigation. In May 2021, their well started “sucking up air,” as the water table had dropped below the well’s pump. “Without water, we can’t function,” she says. “It’s a vulnerable feeling.”

Main wasn’t totally surprised, though. Over the last 10 years, she’s watched new almond and grape orchards cover thousands of surrounding acres and she has seen hundreds of new wells put in to extract the water needed to quench those crops.

The year Main’s well quit working, nearly 70 percent of water used for agriculture in Yolo County, where Good Humus is located, came out of the ground, with the rest provided by irrigation canals or creeks. That was an unusually high amount. The year before, groundwater supplied less than half. Still, throughout California, in a typical year, about 40 percent of the state’s total water supply comes from groundwater. During a dry year, that number inflates to 60 percent.

“Without water, we can’t function. It’s a vulnerable feeling.”

Decades of unregulated agricultural pumping combined with a warming climate and prolonged droughts have wrung California dry and left a massive water crisis. A landmark law, the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA), which was passed in 2014 and will be fully implemented over the next 20 years, is supposed to cut groundwater withdrawal and stabilize water levels. If it succeeds at doing that, it could be a win for all who depend on groundwater, in theory.

But a report recently released indicates that as local agencies try to figure out how to achieve that balance, some of the tools being proposed—including fees, limits on pumping, and water trading programs—may harm historically marginalized farmers and small-scale farms.

The report titled “SGMA and Underrepresented Farmers,” by Clean Water Action, Community Alliance with Family Farmers (CAFF), Civic Well, University of California Agriculture & Natural Resources, and the Leadership Counsel for Justice & Accountability, also questions whether all local agencies charged with devising Groundwater Sustainability Plans (GSPs) are adequately including small farmers and farmers of color in the planning process.

“This report highlights that there needs to be equity in (SGMA),” says Ngodoo Atume, a water policy analyst with the advocacy group Clean Water Action. The report analyzed 14 GSPs from basins located on the central coast of California and in the San Joaquin Valley, an agricultural powerhouse spanning 8 million acres that has sucked up so much water that land has been sinking and water quality continues to deteriorate.

SGMA is a complicated law and the GSPs are dense, hundreds of pages long, and hard to understand without an expertise in hydrology. The local agencies that create those plans have tried to incorporate farmers in the process, using listservs and posting public notices about meetings. Advisory committees that help guide GSPs reserve spots for growers. But Main says most small farmers are stretched too thin to stay fully plugged into a years-long slate of meetings and presentations. In 2021, CAFF surveyed their members about SGMA and found that of those who responded, only one-third had even heard of it.

“We’re doing all the work on the farm, all the books, all the HR, we are all of that,” Main says, adding that at the meetings she has attended, she has noticed that some of the large farms send property or orchard managers. “They’re not the owners or growers.”

Without small farmers meaningfully engaged in the SGMA process, the report found that their needs are often being neglected. For instance, many of the GSPs reviewed aren’t noting depth of irrigation wells, an oversight for small farms relying on shallow irrigation wells that, especially during drought years, are often among the first to go dry. Also, none of the reviewed GSPs figured out whether monitoring wells—which are used to help gauge how quickly a basin is running dry—were located near those vulnerable shallow irrigation wells, helping to possibly flag a problem before it’s too late.

Roughly 80 percent of farms in California are considered small, meaning their gross income totals anywhere from $1,000 to $350,000. Of those farms, nearly a quarter are farmed by BIPOC, refugee, and immigrant farmers growing a diverse range of crops, from green beans and lemongrass to blueberries and eggplants.

Equality vs. Equity

Annie Main on Good Humus Farm.

Good Humus’s Main knew that her three grown children wanted to take over the farm. But to do so they would need water, even in dry years. She had heard of the SGMA in passing over the last few years, but last summer, rattled by a sudden lack of water and forced to pay a couple thousand dollars to drill her well deeper, she threw herself into learning about the law and the GSP process. She likens her shift in mindset around the SGMA to that of a “mama bear feeling threatened.”

She learned that where she farms on the western edge of Yolo County is of “special concern” to the local agency devising her GSP, but that there was a lack of knowledge about the specific dynamics of the water table.

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