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Irrigation Districts are Pumping Groundwater, Making Money, and Undercutting Their Future

Miles of aqueduct operated by the state and federal governemnt run up and down the Central Valley.
Miles of aqueduct operated by the state and federal governemnt run up and down the Central Valley. | Photo:David Sasaki/Flickr/Creative Commons License

The signs are everywhere. Two sets of them line the eastern and western flanks of I-5 as it runs through the Central Valley and they narrate competing stories about the current drought wracking California.

The most in-your-face are the now-ubiquitous billboards and placards decrying the lack of water flowing to Big Ag operations. The culprit for this low(er) flow is not climate-driven drought, they shout, but Congress.

Some of the messages demonize particular politicians (Nancy Pelosi is a favorite target, though she has not been House Speaker for years). Most strike an ominous note, as if a conspiracy was afoot: Stop the Congress Created Dust Bowl! No Water = No Jobs! No Water = Higher Food Prices! A handful of others encourage Southern Californians to see their shared pain; water restrictions, these declare, bite just as hard in Kern and King counties as they do in Los Angeles and San Diego.

Yet this week as we zoomed past these markers of a polarized and polarizing political landscape, the physical terrain offered a counter narrative. Everywhere, water was on the move. Ditches fanning out from the State Water Project and the Central Valley Project were flush, a rush of white gold on its way to irrigate row crops, orchards, and groves. The sun glinted off flooded rice fields. Sprinklers arced across new beds that stretched out to the horizon, aerosoling the sky with a rainbow hue. Tractor and pickup tires were mud-encased.

The source of this water is something of a puzzle.

There have been well-announced cut backs to water deliveries to urban and rural consumers dependent on the almost non-existent Sierra snowpack. Industrial, residential, and agricultural users have been hyper-alert to the impact of this three-year dry spell and in some cases have been actively involved in conservation initiatives, making do with less.

Not everyone has been so savvy or proactive. But it wasn't until I spotted the Sunday edition of the Modesto Bee while stopping in Santa Nella on the way home, that I understood how some of the same folks shedding crocodile tears about reduced water deliveries are part of the problem they so vehemently denounce. "Irrigation districts provide water that's key to agricultural prosperity in the Northern San Joaquin Valley," noted reporter J.N. Sbranti in his front page, top-of-the-fold article, "but some of those districts also have been cashing in on the region's water resources."

The amount of money involved is simply staggering. After digging into the relevant data, Sbranti calculated that local irrigation districts in San Joaquin, Stanislaus, and Merced counties mined 1.5 million acre-feet of groundwater over the past decade and then sold a significant portion to out-of-district agencies to the tune of $140 million. Ka-ching!

Surely that delightful sound is music to the ears of the managers of the Oakdale Irrigation District (OID) in eastern Stanislaus County. Since 2004, OID has sold 40,000 acre feet for a tidy $35 million, a strategy that contained an odd wrinkle: "Despite having surplus water to sell from its Sierra reservoirs, OID continued to pump its Valley wells."

Why it would sell off hard-to-replenish groundwater instead of already available snow melt? Why would it fill its coffers while seriously depleting local supplies? Why choose the short term, if lucrative, fix when it only exacerbates their long term problem? This district's actions, and those of its peers, are hard to fathom.

Then again, maybe not. Diametrically opposed to any form of groundwater monitoring, they have been making bank during the drought. Westlands Water District, which is cash rich but water poor, has been an eager buyer of their waters, and last year alone, it paid $4 million to OID for 40,000 acre-feet. At the same time it scooped up surplus supplies from Merced, Patterson, and West Stanislaus districts, a spending spree that has helped to drive this increased pumping.

Yet what seems an economic boon to the affected water districts will exact a very steep cost. As Fresno State's Sarge Green told the Modesto Bee, when local aquifers are overdrafted, they will start subsiding, and that's already beginning to occur; with subsidence, water quality and quantity is compromised, the resource base diminished.

He also noted this irony: The Central Valley Project, whose concrete-lined canals now move around this newly pumped groundwater, was a New Deal-funded initiative designed in part to wean local farmers off that very finite supply. What those in the 1930s recognized, we have forgotten: once these aquifers are depleted, they cannot be reclaimed.

The social consequences of this environmental collapse will be profound, wreaking havoc on the Central Valley's agricultural economy and disrupting its urban development, a drying up of options and opportunities. When that happens, when Big Ag and its irrigation-district allies start sucking up mud rather than water, they will have no one to blame but themselves.

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