New protections for California’s aquifers are reshaping the state’s Central Valley

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In a farming area east of Tulare, Calif., fields of corn and dairy herds depend on water from wells like this one. The state is now limiting the use of this groundwater.

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The well at Esther Espinoza’s house in Riverdale, Calif., ran dry. A local nonprofit organization delivered a tank and fills it with water, but Espinoza worries that it’s not a reliable water supply.

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Rick Cosyns, a farmer in Madera, Calif., relied on water from the aquifer in years of drought. In other years he could replenish the aquifer with water from the San Joaquin River.

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David Roberts grows citrus crops on the eastern side of the Central Valley, near Woodlake, Calif. Some of his orchards depend entirely on water that he pumps from the aquifer.

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This does not sit well with some farmers, such as David Roberts, who grows citrus crops in Tulare County. «We’re going to turn the water crisis into a food crisis, because we cannot replicate the San Joaquin Valley anywhere else in the United States,» he says.

No other place, he says, has the climate to grow more than 400 different crops. And when consumers realize what they’re missing, he expects a backlash. «This ground will come back into production one way or another,» he says. «The United States cannot be without the San Joaquin Valley producing fruit.»

Roberts agrees that overuse of the aquifer has to end. But he wants the government to step in to deliver more water from rivers and dams to make up for the lost groundwater, to keep more land in production and also replenish the aquifer.

Other water experts say that’s a pipe dream, and unnecessary. Some crops currently grown in the Central Valley, including almost half a million acres of corn used to feed dairy cattle, can easily be grown elsewhere. California’s dairy industry is likely to contract because cattle feed will become increasingly scarce, they say, but consumers will barely notice.

In fact, some farmers think the future looks bright. «I actually think it’s going to be a better future than the past has been,» says Jon Reiter, a rancher and adviser to large-scale farming operations in the valley.

People already are working on creative ways to adapt and prosper, he says. Farmers and water managers are building the infrastructure to capture more water in years when it rains, flood their fields, and replenish the aquifer. That will allow them to pump more groundwater in the future.

Some land still will have to stop growing crops, Reiter says, «but we’re going to take that land and put it to other uses.» There are profits to be made leasing land for solar production, for instance.

Solar farms, like this one in Tulare County, Calif., have replaced some vegetable fields and orchards in the state’s Central Valley.

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«I see the San Joaquin Valley being really a solar hub, renewable energy hub for the whole of California,» he says. «It could be a big part of our state achieving its renewable energy objectives.»

There’s also a new state program that will pay farmers to turn fallowed fields into habitat for birds, lizards, and native shrubs.

No one knows exactly what that Central Valley will look like when this all shakes out. Dozens of local committees are in charge of enforcing the new groundwater law.

Soapy Mulholland, a conservationist who’s on half a dozen of these committees, says they include a much larger range of viewpoints than previously had influence over groundwater. «You’re considering disadvantaged communities, the farmers, you’re considering the environment, and all those players are at the table,» she says. «And that’s a good thing.»

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