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The Bottom Drops Out Part 2: Groundwater and the Valley

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Mendota farmer Rod Cardella | Photo: Emily Green

"Something's gotta give," says Rod Cardella. "We just keep getting pushed down more and more." A farmer since 1969, he sounds more wistful than angry about cuts to his water supply. Perhaps it's the view. He gazes out of a window in a stone tower overlooking his land -- more than 2,500 acres -- planted with wine grapes, cantaloupes, and canning tomatoes. For him, this is an extension of the Tuscany of his forebears.

But this ain't Italy. It's the west side of the Central Valley, in Mendota, California, roughly 35 miles west of Fresno.

Cardella was handpicked for this interview by the public relations agent of the Westlands Water District. As opposed to other Westlands members such as the agribusiness giant Harris Farms (a favorite target of drought-shamers), Cardella's such a nice guy, he's the stranger you'd end up drinking with in an airport. And he's right when he says something's gotta give.

The problem is, the thing giving way is the ground beneath him. Central Valley farmers have so persistently pumped groundwater that the U.S. Geological Survey has called the impact "the largest human alteration of the Earth's surface."

It was near Mendota where, between 1925 and 1977, the Survey's Joseph Poland measured subsidence on a telephone pole of almost 30 feet. Only construction of the state's two big aqueduct systems between the 1940s and 70s that moved water from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Bay Delta temporarily arrested that sinking. But, with a run of scarcely interrupted drought years for the last decade and drastic cuts in Delta imports, Central Valley farmers are pumping groundwater harder and deeper than ever. In 2009, a team from NASA and UC Irvine found that in the previous six years, the San Joaquin Valley had lost enough groundwater to fill Lake Mead, the largest reservoir in the U.S., serving seven states and Mexico. Last year, in Cardella's water district alone, Westlands pumped more than twice the annual usage of Southern Nevada, including Las Vegas.

The upshot: again, the Central Valley is sinking. This time the fastest measured drop is in El Nido, roughly fifty miles from Cardella's farm. There USGS geologists are monitoring what they call a 1,200-square-mile "subsidence bowl" where the ground is dropping at Poland-era rates of almost a foot a year. It's also compacting, according to Poland's successors at the USGS, in a way that will never recover.

"Whatever you've lost in volume during subsidence, you've lost in storage capacity," explains the USGS's Claudia Faunt. In 2009, Faunt's group at the survey published a study calculating that the Central Valley had lost roughly 60 million acre feet of groundwater since 1960. That's a lot of storage. Think two Lake Meads.

The upshot? As Westlands and other irrigation districts throughout the Central Valley keep pumping, while suing to strip the Delta of the environmental protections for fish that have led to sharp cuts in their irrigation water imports, a gambit emerges. Westlands is betting that no government will let them fall off the map. Leaving water in the Delta for fisheries and the environment will take the hit instead.

* * *

It's taken Governor Brown four terms and almost forty years to bring groundwater pumping to the brink of sustainable management, if not outright regulation in California. "In 1977 and '78, he set up a Blue Ribbon Commission, a governor's commission, to review California water law," recalls the state's leading authority on water law, Harrison Dunning. "I took leave from my job teaching at UC Davis. The retiring Chief Justice Donald Wright was chair of the commission. When we submitted our report, we recommended things quite similar to what they did last year at the legislature to begin to regulate groundwater. Jerry Brown gave a brilliant press conference but he didn't use any muscle to get anything through the legislature. We had a solid array of people against us -- chambers of commerce, the Association of California Water Agencies and farm interests."

Stalling groundwater regulation in the Central Valley was only possible without bridges and highways caving in because groundwater pumping slowed when Delta water arrived via federal canals. In water lingo, Delta imports are called "surface water" because they are harvested from streams and rivers feeding the estuary instead of being pumped from the ground. Surface water diversions have been regulated since statehood, but groundwater pumping: barely at all.

To the mind of the country's preeminent groundwater authority and former USGS senior scientist, John Bredehoeft, managing surface water differently from groundwater is to ignore roughly half of the hydrological cycle. His mantra: "If you don't connect the two [surface and groundwater], then you don't understand the system. And if you don't understand the system, I don't know how in the hell you're going to make any kind of judgment about how much water you've got to work with."

California's choice to manage surface water but not groundwater went on for so long, ignored so many generations of warnings by lawyers such as Dunning and scientists such as Bredehoeft, that the executive summary of a 2003 state report Bulletin 118 reads like an indictment. "There is no general requirement that groundwater management plans be submitted to the Department of Water Resources so the number of adopted plans and status of groundwater management throughout the State are not currently known. There are no requirements for evaluating the effectiveness of adopted plans, other than during grant proposal review. No agency is responsible for tracking implementation of adopted plans."

But, in 2014, almost 40 years after the Blue Ribbon commission led by the state's chief justice recommended groundwater regulation, the legislature finally passed the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act. This requires agencies in more than 100 fast-depleting basins to draw up sustainability plans within the next five years, and then allows decades before they are fully implemented. Harrison Dunning calls it "a start."

From Westlands, as Rod Cardella sees it, even self-governorship is onerous. "The legislature just passed legislation that will limit the amount of water we pump. So things can get worse."

* * *

For an outsider, the realization that Rod Cardella sees groundwater regulation as a setback is shocking at first. Doesn't his wine have to leave the farm on roads? Don't those roads have to be passable? At risk as Westlands and other irrigation districts keep pumping is everything that needs solid ground and passes through the Central Valley. This includes a now freakishly undulating Interstate 5 and the California Aqueduct, a supply line for a third of greater L.A.'s water.

As the water table has dropped ten feet in the last four years of drought, an idea is gaining purchase that irrigation districts like Westlands should pay if they cause subsidence damage to infrastructure. "If a group of farmers pointed a tractor at a bridge abutment, started it running and let the foreseeable collision break the bridge, they would be vandals and society would respond with criminal charges," the cult-status water blog On the Public Record editorialized recently.

This leaves Cardella in a hard place. But he's so nice. It was the promise of Delta water that drew him out here in the first place. "When I got out of college, this property was available," he says. "You could only have 160 acres with subsidy."

As for damage Central Valley exports are doing to the Delta, still he's not convinced. "Prove to me we're really hurting the Delta," Cardella says. "That's where I feel chumped. I came here because of this enticement. This water was available."

This year, Cardella reckons that he's fallowed 40 to 50 percent of his land. He stopped growing water-hungry cotton four years ago. "Every acre is drip-irrigated," he says. It's truly a family business. His son makes wine from their 500 acres of producing grape vines and 250 more acres are just maturing. It's got the right-on imprimatur of being sold in Whole Foods. During off-season, Cardella even built the tower we stand in to keep his two dozen workers employed year round. "I want to keep my people busy. I think it's immoral to treat them like a light switch," he says.

The compassion does not extend to families who have been fishing salmon out of the Delta since statehood. Cardella maintains that environmental water that flows through the Delta for fish should be cut because the estuary's too polluted from other sources to sustain its historic salmon runs anyway. "If you wash your aquarium with Windex, you kill the fish," he says.

This ignores the fact that a key reason Delta pollutants are deadly is that so much water is exported to farmers like him, and that the exports were only allowed on the pledge they would not damage fisheries.

As pivots spin groundwater over seedlings still too young for drip, it's time to leave. "Pumping groundwater is like going to a cocktail party and drinking too much," Cardella says sadly. "You know it's going to end badly."

The cruelest ending? One of the things most at risk from subsidence is the Delta Mendota Canal, which carries the export water away from struggling Delta fisheries and toward the steadily sinking land of Westlands.

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