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California Water Cutbacks Could Take Large Area Of Farmland Out Of Production


California is increasing regulations on groundwater. For many farmers in the state, it is a step too far. The law's critics say it could lead to a loss of half a million acres of farmland in California's Central Valley. As Kerry Klein of member station KVPR in Fresno reports, some farmers are so worried, they're quitting.

KERRY KLEIN, BYLINE: Third-generation farmer Doug Martin starts up his big, green, 40-year-old tractor. Here in the San Joaquin Valley, farmers like him produce dairy, livestock and around 250 fruits and vegetables. Martin doesn't mince words about the new Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, or SGMA.

DOUG MARTIN: It would mean total annihilation of the agriculture in this state. It will destroy it.

KLEIN: That includes, he says, the ranch in the city of Hanford that's been in his family since the 1930s. They've raised cattle, grown row crops.

MARTIN: Corn, cotton, wheat, broccoli, sweet corn, garlic. Let's put it this way. I've tried just about everything.

KLEIN: But with SGMA looming, he sees the end of a livelihood that sustained him, his parents and their parents. So he's decided to sell this land with such deep roots. It's been on the market since 2018.

MARTIN: Don't think I'm going to stay here and take a beating. I - there is a point where you've got to fold them and run.

KLEIN: For decades, Californians have been sucking far more out of underground aquifers than rain, snow, rivers or canals could put back in. Almost anyone with a well and almost any good reason could draw as much water as they wanted.

Ruth Dahlquist-Willard, a small farms adviser with the University of California, says that is unsustainable.

RUTH DAHLQUIST-WILLARD: When it's a free-for-all, basically, you have competition for groundwater. And the deepest wells and the largest pumps are going to get more groundwater than their neighbors.

KLEIN: And it's harming the land. The valley itself is literally sinking, due, in part, to dwindling aquifers. SGMA's exact details are still being ironed out, but the consequences will be huge. And while Dahlquist-Willard says it's too early to tell if the law is the right solution, unregulated groundwater use could not continue.

DAHLQUIST-WILLARD: We would see more and more wells going dry in rural communities that depend on well water for drinking and on smaller farms that have shallower wells and don't have the capital to invest in drilling deeper wells and putting in bigger pumps.

KLEIN: Feelings about SGMA are mixed. Legislators and environmental groups hail the law as a step toward sustainability. Disadvantaged communities worry about drinking water access. Many farmers are angry that legislators turned to regulation instead of building more reservoirs. And in some areas, land values are already dropping ahead of the law's implementation.

Wells Fargo agricultural economist Michael Swanson says SGMA has made water access a variable when appraising land and approving loans.

MICHAEL SWANSON: To a farmer, it's what type of soil, what kind of slope, you know, what kind of exposure to, you know, sun and other factors. And now we have a new one, which is, what's your right to pull water to maintain crops going forward?

MARTIN: Here's the property line.

KLEIN: Doug Martin, back in Hanford, already dropped the price once on his 200-acre ranch. He now has a buyer, and he's ready for the sale to be over.

MARTIN: You know what? The rascal's going to write me a check. I love that guy (laughter).

KLEIN: He plans to keep the two acres holding his family's homes. For the rest, he hopes the deal closes by the new year.

For NPR News, I'm Kerry Klein in Fresno.

(SOUNDBITE OF MELODIUM'S "LACRYMAE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Kerry Klein