Extensive agricultural land retirement is coming to production agriculture in California. 

Californians are still optimistic that the current drought will end someday, maybe even this winter, but farmers will continue to face long-term shortages of water. Why? A new state law regulating the extraction of groundwater has been adopted. 

Groundwater pumping has kept hundreds of farms operating the past four years but continuous groundwater pumping won’t be allowed under the new California Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, which is set to take effect in 2020. It will limit how much groundwater can be extracted over the long haul.  

There is language about “sustainable” pumping, but what constitutes that is still being figured out. To many, including water policy experts, it ultimately means that many farmers will gradually have their water supplies curtailed.  

“It’s not a question of if – it’s a question of how much and where,” Chris Scheuring, a lawyer and water expert at the California Farm Bureau Federation, was quoted as saying by Dale Kasler of the Sacramento Bee newspaper. 

Experts at UC Davis estimate that farmers in the San Joaquin Valley, the heart of California’s $54 billion-a-year agricultural industry, have been draining the valley’s underground water reserves by as much as 5 million acre-feet per year during the drought to help compensate for huge shortfalls in water deliveries from the State Water Project and the federal government’s Central Valley Project.  

Many of the state’s farmers are already dealing with long-term water problems and are retiring land from production.  Estimates are that the new groundwater law could shrink agriculture acreage as much as 300,000 acres. These would be permanently retired production land according to farm economist Vernon Crowder, a senior vice president at agricultural lender Rabobank, who Kasler also quoted for the newspaper’s article.   

As Kasler worte, “That’s not a huge amount in a state with nearly 9 million irrigated acres of farmland. But it’s not trivial, either. It’s enough acres to grow the entire $1.2 billion California tomato crop.” The concept is unsettling to many involved in agriculture both within the state and nationally because it could impact food prices, especially for those crops that are more seasonal than California.  

Even before the drought began four years ago, the valley’s aquifers were being depleted by 1 million to 2 million acre-feet per year, according to data compiled by the state Department of Water Resources. An acre-foot is 326,000 gallons. 

As Kasler wrote, “In other words, this is a deep, systemic problem that will squeeze farmers long after the drought ends.”