When a fire started on the property next door to Ray Cano’s home, the neighbors used Cano’s hose and well to fight the flames. Running the pump at full throttle, they managed to control the blaze until the fire department arrived. Then, the well’s pump sputtered to a stop.
Cano later called a well inspector, who did some basic probing and discovered the problem: The well had run dry, causing the pump’s motor to overheat. Cano had the man install a new pump and run the line about 40 feet deeper.
“He said that would last me another three or four years,” said Cano, a mailman who lives with his wife in Tombstone Territory, a cluster of homes in central Fresno County surrounded by orchards.
That was in May 2015 — the peak of the state’s epic drought, when farmers in the San Joaquin Valley aggressively pumped groundwater to irrigate their land. Groundwater tables had been dropping for years in the region, and the drought exacerbated the problem. During the five-year dry spell, thousands of residential wells ran out of water.
Something else also happened during the drought: State leaders passed a triage of bills known collectively as the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, or SGMA, as the law is generally called (it’s pronounced “Sigma”). Hailed as a legislative landmark that would bring relief to communities like Cano’s, the well-intentioned but slow-moving law requires farmers and other community members to form “groundwater sustainability agencies” (called GSAs in the acronym-strewn landscape of SGMA). The GSAs then come up with “groundwater sustainability plans” (GSPs) that, through pumping reductions and enhanced recharge, should allow depleted basins to refill or at least stabilize over a span of 20-something years. In the long-term, SGMA would force farmers reliant on groundwater to reduce their crop production, putting hundreds of thousands of acres of land permanently out of production and striking a multi-billion-dollar blow to the state’s agricultural economy. The upside is that SGMA would, in theory, make things right for many disadvantaged communities like Tombstone Territory.
But that’s only if SGMA goes as planned, and it might not. According to watchdog activists overseeing the process, at least several of the groundwater sustainability plans now being reviewed by the California Department of Water Resources favor the […]