Water Woes: Farmers Depleting Water Table While Wealthy Cities are All Wet


It’s way past time for California to start treating fresh water as the scarce resource it really is.  The drought grows worse and the light snowpack from the past winter isn’t nearly enough.  There are two articles worth reading today: one in the New York Times that covers how Central Valley farmers are using so much water that the state’s water table is figuratively being sucked dry causing land, roads and bridge supports to sink.  And today’s Los Angeles Times identifies the state’s wealthiest cities — including Newport Beach — as using more than their fair share of this dwindling resource.

Where’s El Nino when you need it?

Agriculture has enormous economic impact on the state’s economy — not just providing fresh produce and fruit for much of the nation, especially in winter months, but in jobs.  This story from 2014 in National Geographic highlights the risk the drought holds for farmers in the central valley and what agriculture means for California’s economy.

From the story:

According to the UC Davis report, the state’s agricultural sector faces a net water shortage of 1.6 million acre-feet this year, which will cause losses of $810 million in crop revenue and $203 million in lost dairy and other livestock value, plus additional groundwater pumping costs of $454 million. These direct costs to agriculture total $1.5 billion. When the job losses are factored in, the total economic impact to the state economy is estimated to be $2.2 billion.

According to this morning’s NY Times article, farmer’s are likely using unwise water management to extract groundwater to satisfy the thirst of crops that yield the highest revenue.  From the story:

Farmers are drilling wells at a feverish pace and pumping billions of gallons of water from the ground, depleting a resource that was critically endangered even before the drought, now in its fourth year, began.

California has pushed harder than any other state to adapt to a changing climate, but scientists warn that improving its management of precious groundwater supplies will shape whether it can continue to supply more than half the nation’s fruits and vegetables on a hotter planet.


In some places, water tables have dropped 50 feet or more in just a few years. With less underground water to buoy it, the land surface is sinking as much as a foot a year in spots, causing roads to buckle and bridges to crack. Shallow wells have run dry, depriving several poor communities of water.

Scientists say some of the underground water-storing formations so critical to California’s future — typically, saturated layers of sand or clay — are being permanently damaged by the excess pumping, and will never again store as much water as farmers are pulling out.


In normal times, agriculture consumes roughly 80 percent of the surface water available for human use in California, and experts say the state’s water crisis will not be solved without a major contribution from farmers.

California’s greatest resource in dry times is not its surface reservoirs, though, but its groundwater, and scientists say the drought has made the need for better controls obvious. While courts have taken charge in a few areas and imposed pumping limits, groundwater in most of the state has been a resource anyone could grab.

Yet putting strict limits in place is expected to take years. The new law, which took effect Jan. 1, does not call for reaching sustainability until the 2040s. Sustainability is vaguely defined in the statute, but in most basins will presumably mean a long-term balance between water going into the ground and water coming out. Scientists have no real idea if the groundwater supplies can last until the 2040s.

Back to today’s LA Times.  When scare resources and the laws of supply and demand combine, it usually means those resources become more expensive.  The 1 percenters in Beverly Hills, Malibu and Newport Beach are using more water than the rest of us.

From the story:

Residents in communities such as La Canada Flintridge, Newport Beach, Malibu and Palos Verdes all used more than 150 gallons of water per capita per day in January. By contrast, Santa Ana used just 38 gallons and communities in Southeast L.A. County used less than 45.

Water usage in Los Angeles was 70 gallons per capita. But within the city, a recent UCLA study examining a decade of Department of Water and Power data showed that on average, wealthier neighborhoods consume three times more water than less-affluent ones.

With Gov. Jerry Brown’s order requiring a 25% cut in water consumption, upscale communities are scrambling to develop stricter laws that will work where years of voluntary standards have not. Many believe it’s going to take a change in culture as well as city rules to hit the goal.

“Some people — believe it or not — don’t know we are in a drought,” said George Murdoch, general manager of utilities in Newport Beach, which is beginning to fine chronic water wasters. “We have people that own a home here but aren’t around a lot, so they could miss a leak.”

Stephanie Pincetl, who worked on the UCLA water-use study, said wealthy Californians are “lacking a sense that we are all in this together.”

“The problem lies, in part, in the social isolation of the rich, the moral isolation of the rich,” Pincetl said.

Until now, Beverly Hills officials said they have focused on educating, rather than penalizing water wasters. The city is in the second stage of its emergency water conservation plan, which calls for voluntary limits on use of fountains that do not use recycled water, pavement washing and lawn watering to reduce water consumption by 10%.

But on Friday, fountains, sprinklers and hoses seemed to flow freely throughout the city.


Conservation is a first step.  Banning fracking will also save precious water resources.  Adding teeth in the form of stiff fines for overconsumption of water could aid conservation efforts.  Repairing California’s water infrastructure can help, but there’s little evidence its the only solution.

In Governor Brown’s proposal for reacting to the drought, there’s a line calling for the acceleration of desalination plants to be built throughtout they state, which critics say would be an environmental disaster for the coastal ecosystem while locking the state into expensive water for years.  But using desalinated water and pipelines might be the fastest way to replenish water tables especially in the Central Valley, and environmental disasters can be dealt with by laws restricting highly salinated byproducts from being dumped back in the ocean.  But drought conditions are expected for years to come.

There are no easy answers and no fast solutions here.  It’s also clear, California will need federal aid to invest in infrastructure repair and other water management technologies.  Even a couple of years of soaking El Nino conditions isn’t enough to replace the water lost compared to what’s needed.

  3 comments for “Water Woes: Farmers Depleting Water Table While Wealthy Cities are All Wet

  1. RHackett
    April 6, 2015 at 1:23 pm

    Something else that should be addressed are the historic water agreements that are not practical today.

    Due to an agreement made in 1922, Imperial County, with a population of 175,000, gets 3.1 million acre-feet of water a year. The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, serving 19 million people, gets about 1.1 million acre-feet.

    Makes no sense.

    • April 6, 2015 at 4:03 pm

      That’s because it was put into place in 1922. There were far fewer people in LA & OC back then.

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