Madera County is running out of time as groundwater levels plummet to new depths.
Wells are going dry everywhere. Drillers have months-long waitlists. Residents are scrambling for water tanks. And farmers will soon face a reckoning after agriculture’s footprint, particularly nut trees, has more than doubled in the past 50 years — far outpacing irrigation supplies.
There’s growing consensus among farmers, county officials and residents that Madera’s groundwater problem will be solved mainly by cutting water demand, not by waiting for more dams to be built or even recharging excess water into the aquifer.
“There’s only so much water you can percolate into the ground,” explained David Loquaci, owner of Madera Ag Services and a Madera Irrigation District board member.
“Guys who have been farming for years and years, and people who have planted more recently — they’ve all got to cut back. The disagreement is how fast.”
Time is not on their side: Some are concerned that efforts to restore the aquifer and comply with California’s seven-year-old groundwater law aren’t keeping pace with nature’s plans.
An ‘exponential curve of loss’
Matt Angell has spent the better part of his six decades living in Madera County as an almond grower, an irrigation systems engineer, a soil enthusiast, the president of the San Joaquin Valley Regional Resource Conservation Districts, and, since 2012, the owner of Madera Pumps, a well repair company.
He has watched the water table at one of his own wells drop 60 feet since February and has seen similar drops in groundwater in the hundreds of wells his company has serviced this year.
It’s part of a much larger decline he’s observed in the past decade: more than 100 feet across the Madera sub-basin since 2010. According to Angell, that equates to about 1 million acre feet per year. For comparison, Millerton Lake holds about 520,000 acre feet when it’s full.
“You could drain Millerton Lake 18 times over, and you still wouldn’t have enough water to replace what we’ve lost in the last decade,” Angell said.
Allison Quady’s family has run Quady Winery in the Madera Irrigation District since 1977. One of their wells has dropped about 70 feet between 2014 and now — 10 feet a year for the past seven years. Prior to that, it had dropped just 10 feet over a 20-year span. “It’s an exponential curve of loss,” she said. “That’s what scares me.”
The loss of too much groundwater has other effects, including ground compaction, or subsidence.
“There’s subtle ways you can see subsidence,” said Loquaci. “In almost every well I’ve worked on this year, the casing is broken — it’s being crushed like a beer can.”
People who rely on domestic wells, which tend to be shallower than ag wells, are being hit especially hard right now. The communities of Parksdale, the Madera Ranchos, and the new suburban community of Riverstone have experienced well failures. Fairmead is in the process of getting a new community well after one went dry in the last drought.
More than 200 families are now on water tanks after their wells dried up. Under the groundwater plan for the Madera subbasin, more than 700 domestic wells were expected to fail by 2040, according to an analysis by the UC Davis Center for Regional Change.
Nut explosion in a changing climate
In the last decade, two major challenges have converged: an explosion of permanent crops, and a longstanding drought exacerbated by record levels of heat, due to climate change.
Permanent crops, such as almonds or pistachios — which can’t be plowed under or fallowed in dry years — have grown by more than 80,000 acres across Madera County since 2010, according to Madera County crop reports.
At the same time, surface water deliveries from rivers and reservoirs have hit record lows, due to persistently dry conditions.
“A big thing people don’t realize is that the last drought never ended,” said Tom Krazan, owner of Kings River Well Drilling and former president of the California Groundwater Association. “Former Gov. Jerry Brown may have declared the drought was over, but in terms of groundwater tables, we’ve never recovered. This is a long-term drought, not a short-term drought.”
But all those trees still need water. Since 2012, the beginning of the last drought, around 1,254 new agricultural wells have been permitted across Madera County, according to county data acquired by SJV Water, an online publication covering water issues.
Growers say market forces and a shift away from flood irrigation opened the gates for an explosion of permanent crops, despite a lack of surface water.
“It wasn’t anyone breaking the law planting all these almonds,” said Loquaci. “If you want to blame somebody, blame drip irrigation. It opened up thousands of acres of land that could’ve never been flood irrigated.”
“The cost of land is so expensive in California, you have no option but to farm the permanent crops — the almonds, the pistachios,” explained Gurbir Samran, a local farmer.
Profit margins for almonds and pistachios are higher than for most other crops. According to the Madera County 2020 crop report, those two crops alone accounted for nearly half of the $1.9 billion total valuation of all crops grown in Madera County last year.
That kind of money has attracted a lot of interest. Angell said he’s seen a huge influx in investors from the Silicon Valley buying up farmland and planting almonds and pistachios over the past few years.
The vast expansion of new nut trees has created greater demand for groundwater. But how much? There’s still disagreement.
Madera County’s plan to address groundwater overdraft in the Madera subbasin estimates historic groundwater overdraft of about 165,900 acre feet per year with groundwater declines of 4.5 feet per year.
That’s about one-sixth of the overdraft that Angell has seen over the past decade. Angell and other growers are estimating a drop in groundwater levels of 10 feet a year.
The state’s Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, or SGMA (pronounced ‘sigma’), requires local groundwater subbasins to estimate overdraft and develop a plan to bring the aquifer back into balance, meaning more water isn’t pumped out than goes back in, by 2040.
So, agreeing on the extent of overdraft is key to fixing it.
How can the county’s groundwater model be so far off of reality, as observed by well fixers, growers, and residents?
It could be as simple as which wells you look at, said Stephanie Anagnoson, director of Natural Resources for Madera County and the county’s point person on developing a groundwater plan.
She said Angell and other well fixers are, by the nature of their jobs, seeing distressed and broken wells.
“It’s hard to know which wells are representative of the county,” Anagnoson explained. “You often hear more about the wells that aren’t performing right now. That’s why we try to have a representative sample.”
The ‘white areas’
Groundwater overdraft isn’t unique to Madera County. It’s happening all over the San Joaquin Valley. But Madera County is also grappling with large tracts of “white areas,” or lands that are outside of water district boundaries.
Maps typically show water districts in different colors with undistricted lands denoted in white, hence the name. Unlike growers in water districts, who pay assessments to buy water and build canals to import it, growers in white areas rely almost exclusively on groundwater.
Nearly half of Madera County’s irrigated farmland is in the white areas, which means those lands are pulling hard on the aquifer.
Under the state’s groundwater management law, Madera County took control of the white areas in the Madera and Chowchilla subbasins. Without surface water from rivers or reservoirs, the county has to focus on reducing water demand to reduce the overdraft from those lands.
Paying for overdraft
To get growers in the white areas to stop overpumping the aquifer, the Madera County Board of Supervisors voted on June 8 to charge a fee for water pumped in excess of the “sustainable yield.” That’s the term for the amount of water recharged to the aquifer by rain or runoff.
The amount of the fee, which only applies to white area growers, will be determined by the end of 2021.
White area growers are expected to reduce their pumping beyond the sustainable yield by 2% per year by 2025, and then by another 6% per year by 2040. The final allocation policy is supposed to reduce overdraft by 112,000 acre feet by 2040.
County officials hope that by putting a price on groundwater overdraft, some growers will start taking out trees. “Most growers have areas in their orchards that have never done well, and don’t have high yields. And so it might make sense to take those out,” explained Anagnoson.
The county expects around 29,000 acres of irrigated land to come out of production completely. That’s not even half of the acres of permanent crops that have been added over the past decade.
Pumping fees will go into a fund to fix wells for residents who have run out of water, pay farmers to fallow their land, or purchase extra surface water, said Anagnoson.
County officials — along with some farmers — say the county’s gradual approach to reducing demand is necessary to avoid economic devastation.
Others are worried it’s too little, too late.
“The county thinks that drastic demand reduction is radical. But what’s really radical is the amount of groundwater depletion we’re seeing right now,” said Madeline Harris, a policy advocate with Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability. “It’s radical to accept we’re going to let this many wells go dry.”
Madera Irrigation District says the county’s plan allows white area growers to unfairly ride the coattails of growers in water districts who’ve been paying for generations to bring water into the county in order to protect the aquifer.
They didn’t mince words in a July 6 letter to their own growers.
“However YOU, a MID landowner, is the one feeling the real impacts of the situation. You and your fellow MID neighbors are the ones not only paying for MID surface water and to retain those precious water rights, but now YOU also have to pay to lower your wells, drill new wells, additional PG&E pumping costs, and water treatment costs because of the actions (or really inactions) of Madera County. Meanwhile, Madera County GSA’s plan is now to monetize that overdraft for the benefit of themselves only?!?”
In response, Anagnoson suggests in a July 16 letter that blame for MID wells going dry is unfairly placed on white area growers — when district growers are pumping themselves after irrigation deliveries were curtailed.
Thomas Greci, the general manager for Madera Irrigation District, says the dispute centers on the scope and speed of necessary pumping reductions, which he said the county has modified since it released its groundwater plan. “They need to be more aggressive and get their reductions on track with the plan,” Greci said.
Anagnoson said Madera Irrigation growers will likely need to cut back on their own pumping if reduced surface water deliveries become the new normal. She noted the district’s groundwater plan relies entirely on groundwater recharge to bring the aquifer into balance.
Will state officials step in?
Some growers are convinced Madera locals are the best source for solutions.
“Farmers are really creative when their backs are up against the wall,” said Karun Samran, a local grower.
Angell thinks Madera farmers and residents can face the crisis themselves.
“We’ve got the ability to hold onto this. We’ve got hundreds of small growers in this county to figure our way out. This isn’t a finger-pointing situation. We all need to understand we all have to get in the boat and row this together.”
Meanwhile, Fairmead resident Vickie Ortiz is nervous about the 200 acres of pistachios that were just planted on a long vacant lot a “stone’s throw away” from her home, which relies on a private well.
“When I’m outside using my hose, and it gets a kink — you lose your breath for a moment and ask, ‘Is this it? Am I out of water this time’?”
Lois Henry of SJV Water contributed as a guest editor to this story.