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Dry heaves

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I liked the Assembly Chambers best of all, I decided upon exiting the California State Capitol. My opinion was undoubtedly based mostly on the room’s cool green color scheme (far more soothing, I thought, than the red carpeting of the Senate Floor), since only the décor, and not the legislators, was on view from the gallery that day. Disappointed that I had not seen a great law-making debate in progress, I zigzagged between shaded patches of sidewalk as I made my way back to the hotel in the hot, dry Sacramento summer air.

Little did I know that two weeks later, hours before the close of their legislative session, members of both Assembly and Senate would be back in action passing some of the most important legislation Governor Jerry Brown will see this year. The three bills passed last Friday would, if signed by Governor Brown, require regulation of California’s groundwater supply, an urgent issue during this intensifying drought.

Groundwater stores, as the name suggests, are reservoirs of water hidden below ground. Here on the Peninsula our drinking water comes from the surface snowmelt that fills Hetch Hetchy, but statewide Californians get more than one-third of their water supply from underground. In times of drought, when surface water supplies dwindle, up to 60 percent of our fresh water is pumped up from groundwater stores.

Unfortunately, this reliance is unsustainable.

Over the past few years, California’s groundwater supplies have been drying up. Monitored supplies are hitting all-time lows, and farmers throughout the Central Valley are digging ever deeper to reach the water table. This is a frightening pattern: It takes years to accumulate water below ground, so even in wet years this trend will be difficult to reverse.

Yet before last Friday, the state has been doing little to nothing to address its critical groundwater issues. Unlike every other Western state, California operates under a “pump as you please” policy: If you can extract the groundwater, it’s yours.

Predictably, this leads to a “tragedy of the commons” scenario in which individuals, each acting to irrigate crops and get the most out of the land, race to extract the water. With no broader oversight, the groundwater becomes overexploited and, ultimately, disappears.

As the legislature is finally realizing, this regulatory gap must be filled. But the water restrictions will prove painful, especially to hundreds of Central Valley farmers who have come to rely on unfettered access to groundwater. That’s why voting on the bills was so sharply divided, not along the typical party lines but geographically: While everyone recognizes the urgent need for regulation, both Democrats and Republicans from rural areas opposed this iteration.

Opponents cite California’s $42.6 billion agricultural sector and the 450,000 jobs it provides. Regulating water threatens this industry, which, in turn, threatens the food security of all Americans. Who hasn’t tasted a Californian strawberry? Or eaten cheese from the state’s “happy cows”? Driving the 5 through the Central Valley, it’s easy to be overwhelmed by the road signs demanding water for the “farm families that feed America” (though the signage blaming President Obama for California’s drought is less convincing).

I sympathize, as much as an urban dweller can. Particularly for farmers, one’s career can become one’s identity, passed on through generations along with the land. But I also know that farmers use 80 percent of California’s fresh water each year. And, while their efforts produce almost $20 billion in exports each year, the agricultural sector makes up just 2 percent of California’s $2 trillion economy.

Eighty percent of the water for 2 percent of the gross state product. That doesn’t seem like a very efficient use of water to me.

Yes, California is the breadbasket of the United States, producing 15 percent of the nation’s crops, and 7 percent of its livestock. Yes, using water to grow food is an infinitely better use of the resource than, say, maintaining a golf course in the middle of the desert.

But placing restrictions on the major consumers of California’s precious fresh water will not cripple the state’s economy. And the gradual implementation proposed by the new legislation (the real teeth of the laws don’t kick in until 2025) buys farmers more time than is probably environmentally feasible to adjust to the new regulations.

In any case, the falling water tables speak for themselves. If Governor Brown doesn’t sign this legislation, we’ll be facing an even more dramatic upheaval when our groundwater supplies finally dry up.

Contact Holly Moeller at hollyvm ‘at’ Stanford.edu.

Holly is a Ph.D. student in Ecology and Evolution, with interests that range from marine microbes to trees and mushrooms to the future of human life on this swiftly tilting planet. She's been writing "Seeing Green" since 2007, and still hasn't run out of environmental issues to cover, so to stay sane she goes for long runs, communes with redwood trees and does yoga (badly).