Why California’s agriculture needs groundwater management

Source: California Department of Water Resources

Source: California Department of Water Resources

California’s agricultural prosperity increasingly depends on groundwater availability during drought. Global markets favoring high-value nuts, fruits and wine grapes are fueling a steady conversion of farmland from annual crops and pasture to orchards and vineyards. The growing profitability of these permanent crops, however, cannot be sustained unless agricultural communities commit to preserve and manage groundwater as a buffer against drought. Three researchers with the UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences explain why.

By Jay Lund, Josué Medellín-Azuara and Thomas Harter

Without access to groundwater, this year’s drought would be truly devastating to farms and cities throughout California. Groundwater is California’s largest source of water storage for drought. However, reduced recharge and growing groundwater use in wetter years threatens to diminish its availability in droughts. This can become a serious threat to California’s agriculture and rural residents.

The current drought highlights how much California’s agricultural prosperity depends on groundwater — and agriculture’s growing need for managing it.

Agriculture in California is undergoing significant economic growth and intensification, beyond any growth in irrigated acreage and water use. Global markets favor the state’s nut, fruit, vine and vegetable crops with high prices. This has fed conversion of agricultural land from annual crops and pasture to tree and vine crops (Figure 1).

Today about 3 million of California’s 9 million acres of irrigated farmland are in tree and vine crops, which provide more than 59 percent of the state’s gross crop farm revenues. This economic intensification of permanent crops makes agriculture more profitable, but also more dependent on groundwater being available during droughts.

Source: Author calculations using NASS and the Statewide Agricultural Production Model (SWAP)

Figure 1. Tree and vine crops’ proportional share of California’s irrigated farmland and gross crop revenues. Source: Author calculations using NASS and the Statewide Agricultural Production Model (SWAP)

During drought, groundwater supplies well over half of California’s water. Over time, groundwater is replenished by recharge from rivers and “excess” irrigation water, by intentional recharge and, in wet years, by precipitation.

“Excess” water percolating into the ground from irrigation is an important input to groundwater storage. Ironically, “inefficient” irrigation with surface water supports drought groundwater supplies. (But it also can deliver more fertilizer, salt and pesticide contaminants to groundwater.)

In wet years, when surface water is more plentiful, California’s aquifers receive much more recharge from streams as wnd percolation from surface-water irrigated cropland (Figure 2). In dry years, reduced streamflows and surface water deliveries can drastically reduce surface-water recharge to groundwater. Farmers instead pump more groundwater to sustain their crops, often at higher irrigation efficiency.

Figure 2 shows the annual water fluxes onto and away from the surface of southern Tulare County for the years 1970-2000 (Ruud et al., 2002, 2004).  Bars to the right are water supplies from pumped groundwater, surface water, and precipitation. Bars to the left show water leaving the landscape either as evapotranspiration (consumptive use), as recharge to groundwater from stream and irrigation channels, or as recharge from “excess” irrigation from cropland. In drought years (1977, 1988-1992; red arrows), recharge from channels is almost zero, recharge from irrigation is at its lowest level, while groundwater pumping is very high. In very wet years (1983, 1998, blue arrows), groundwater pumping is much reduced and large amounts of recharge occur from streams and irrigation (including some intentional and flood recharge).

Figure 2. Annual water entering and leaving surface of southern Tulare County, supporting a wide range of permanent and field crops, 1970 – 2000. Bars on right are water supplies from pumped groundwater, surface water and precipitation. Bars on left show water leaving landscape either as evapotranspiration (consumptive use), as recharge to groundwater from stream and irrigation channels, or as recharge from “excess” irrigation. In drought years 1977 and 1988-1992 (red arrows), recharge from channels is almost zero and recharge from irrigation is at its lowest level, while groundwater pumping is very high. In the very wet years pf 1983 and 1998 (blue arrows), pumping is much reduced and large amounts of recharge occur from streams and irrigation (including some intentional and flood recharge). Source: Ruud et al., 2002, 2004

Some parts of California carefully price surface irrigation water to manage this balance, making surface water less expensive in wetter years to discourage groundwater pumping and encourage recharge from surface water (Vaux 1986, Jenkins 1992). If too much water is pumped in wetter years or irrigation becomes too efficient without intentionally recharging saved surface water supplies, groundwater becomes depleted and unavailable during droughts.

California’s growing water scarcity (from growing human and environmental demands and, perhaps in the future, from climate change) is upsetting this balance. If too few years are wet, groundwater recharge is no longer enough for drought years.

Without some overall management of the groundwater basin, farmers are likely to react individually to less surface water availability by pumping more groundwater. However, over time, groundwater depletion will raise pumping costs and dry up shallower wells. This leads to groundwater becoming less reliable in droughts and more costly in all years.

Over-use and under-recharge of groundwater has several costly effects on agriculture:

  • Drought years require more fallowing, as pumping costs increase and groundwater is less available. This reduces farm and rural incomes in drought years and increases economic volatility in rural areas.
  • Lower drought-year reliability makes it riskier to plant the more profitable permanent crops. This greatly reduces farm and rural incomes and investment in all years.
  • Groundwater drawdown can cause land subsidence, creating potentially costly disruptions to regional flood and irrigation systems.
  • Seawater intrusion in coastal basins makes groundwater less available for irrigation and drinking water.

While the latter two issues have regained some attention in this drought year, we want to focus on the first two points to illustrate the nexus between economically successful farming and regional groundwater management.

Consider a simplified example of an irrigation district whose groundwater is fed only by return irrigation flows, but has sizable surface water supplies in wet years and no surface water available in dry years (Figure 3). Farmers in this district can plant permanent crops for $1,000 an acre in yearly profits or an annual crop for $500/acre-year profit. One quarter of irrigation water use recharges groundwater.

fig3.tiff

Figure 3. Irrigation district with permanent and annual crops, with wet-year net recharge to groundwater and dry-year pumping to support permanent crops.

With more than three out of four wet years of imported surface water, groundwater recharge can support pumping in droughts and farmers can profit from having a large proportion of profitable permanent crops (Figure 4). All land is in permanent crops and the average profit is $1000/acre-year (Figure 5).

However, as dry years become more frequent, profit-minded farmers need to find ways to preserve groundwater for dry years, particularly for permanent crops. Groundwater can be preserved for dry years by increasing recharge in wet years (by artificial recharge programs) if enough surface water is available or by reducing groundwater withdrawals in dry years by fallowing annual crops. In any case, local groundwater management promotes profitability for district farmers.

Without supplemental surface water, farmers would reduce their permanent crops with more frequent drought years (Figure 4). This would be accompanied by increasing annual crops in remaining wet years to maintain profits and recharge, but fallowing the annual crops in dry years to better sustain remaining permanent crops – requiring limits on dry year pumping.

With more frequent droughts, permanent crops cannot be supported without management.

Figure 4. Declining shares of more profitable crops with local groundwater management. With more frequent droughts, not enough recharge occurs and permanent crops cannot be sustained without management. Source: UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences

As the proportion of dry years increases, dry-year fallowing increases and the sustainable proportion of more profitable permanent crops decreases (Figure 4). But maintaining enough wet-year annual crops to fallow in dry years requires that farmers cooperate – either by restrictions or cooperative contracts.

The differences in profits with and without groundwater management are shown in Figure 5. Without groundwater management, permanent crops can be sustained with enough wet years, but when droughts become frequent enough, groundwater becomes depleted and crops can be grown only in wet years – meaning permanent crops are no longer viable and less profitable annual crops are grown.

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Figure 5. Declining long-term profits in drier conditions, with and without local groundwater management. Source: UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences

If farmers plant too many acres in permanent crops, groundwater depletions lead to drought years without enough water for them, resulting in large economic losses. If farmers maintain enough annual crops to fallow in drought years, then permanent crops and overall profits can be maximized, even in drought years.

However, without cooperation in fallowing during dry years, the insecurity of drought groundwater availability reduces permanent crops below their most profitable levels. Farmers now have economic incentive to cooperate in managing groundwater.

Two big lessons arise from this situation:

  • The growing profitability of permanent crops gives agricultural communities a decided long-term interest in preserving and managing groundwater as a drought buffer.
  • With more dry years and diminished surface water availability, fallowing must inevitably increase during droughts, unless groundwater overdraft or additional water imports or recharge are available.

Droughts raise our groundwater consciousness, but wet years wash it away to the peril California agriculture’s long-term prosperity. Farming will be less profitable, more volatile and provide fewer economic opportunities without more organized and better informed groundwater management.

Further reading

ACWA (2014), Recommendations for Achieving Groundwater Sustainability, Association of California Water Agencies.

ACWA (2011), Sustainability from the Ground Up – Groundwater Management in California – a Framework, Association of California Water Agencies.

Blomquist, W. 1992. Dividing the Waters: Governing Groundwater in Southern California. San Francisco: ICS Press

California Natural Resources Agency, California Department of Food and Agriculture, California Environmental Protection Agency. 2014. California Water Action Plan. Sacramento, CA

Connor, J., K. Schwabe, D. King, D. Kaczan, and M. Kirby (2009), “Impacts of climate change on lower Murray irrigation,” Australian Journal of Agricultural and Resource Economics, 53, pp. 437–456

Faunt ed. (2009), Groundwater Availability of the Central Valley Aquifer, California: U.S. Geological Survey Professional Paper 1766, 225 pp.

Hanak et al (2014) Funding sustainable groundwater management in California, CaliforniaWaterBlog.com

Hanak, E., J. Lund, A. Dinar, B. Gray, R. Howitt, J. Mount, P. Moyle, B. Thompson. 2011. Managing California’s Water: From Conflict to Reconciliation. Public Policy Institute of California. San Francisco, CA

Harou, J.J. and J.R. Lund (2008), “Ending groundwater overdraft in hydrologic-economic systems,” Hydrogeology Journal, Volume 16, Number 6, September, pp. 1039–1055.

Harter, T., et al. (2012), Addressing Nitrate in California’s Drinking Water with a Focus on Tulare Lake Basin and Salinas Valley Groundwater. Report for the State Water Resources Control Board Report to the Legislature. Center for Watershed Sciences, University of California, Davis. 78 p.

Lund and Harter (2013), “California’s groundwater problems and prospects,” CaliforniaWaterBlog.com

Ruud, N. C., T. Harter, A. W. Naugle, 2002. A conjunctive use model for the Tule groundwater sub-basin area in the Southern-Eastern San Joaquin Valley, California, Final Report to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, November 2002, 196 pages

Ruud, N. C., T. Harter, and A. W. Naugle, 2004. Estimation of groundwater pumping as closure to the water balance of a semi-arid irrigated agricultural basin. J. of Hydrology 297:51-73

 

 

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9 Responses to Why California’s agriculture needs groundwater management

  1. Pingback: Blog round-up: What the Republican gubernatorial candidate thinks about the BDCP and more; Jerry Meral on droughts, recessions, and ballot measures, plus tax wars, negative water, drought and desal, and lots more … » MAVEN'S NOTEBOOK | MAV

  2. Pingback: Blog round-up: What the Republican gubernatorial candidate thinks about the BDCP and more; Jerry Meral on droughts, recessions, and ballot measures, plus tax wars, negative water, drought and desal, and lots more … » MAVEN'S NOTEBOOK | MAV

  3. Pingback: Blog round-up: What the Republican gubernatorial candidate thinks about the BDCP and more; Jerry Meral on droughts, recessions, and ballot measures, plus tax wars, negative water, drought and desal, and lots more … » MAVEN'S NOTEBOOK | MAV

  4. Tim says:

    When California agriculture depletes or contaminates groundwater, how many millions of individuals dependent upon groundwater, do they negatively impact? The negative impacts from excessive agriculture are significant and cannot be mitigated without significant changes in California’s agriculture. The article makes a good case with numbers demonstrating that current water use and agricultural plantings are incompatible and unsustainable. Unfortunately the UC system through its agricultural representatives does not adequately encourage safe or sustainable agriculture. Instead, maximum production and financial profit with little regard to environment and the general population is encouraged. The transition from annual and winter cropping to permanent crops that require greater volumes of water that will in turn lose more water to the atmosphere further exacerbate our water supplies. If the overdrafting of groundwater was made illegal that would be a huge step towards correcting this problem.

  5. Tom says:

    What is the storage capacity of California aquifers?
    How full are they on average?
    If we actively pumped water into the aquifers, how much more water would/could we store?
    What new infrastructure do we need to do the pumping? At what cost?
    Shouldn’t we meter all agriculture consumption?
    Is this infrastructure more important to solving long term water issues than the proposed tunnels around the delta?

  6. Pingback: Blog round-up: What the Republican gubernatorial candidate thinks about the BDCP and more; Jerry Meral on droughts, recessions, and ballot measures, plus tax wars, negative water, drought and desal, and lots more … » MAVEN'S NOTEBOOK | MAV

  7. Pingback: Bloggers discuss groundwater, the role of the federal government in water, management of the Colorado River, water issues in California, global water stress and more

  8. Pingback: Weathering the drought by drawing down the bank | California WaterBlog

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