DAVIS, Calif. — As newly assembled local agencies prepare to implement California’s new groundwater law, now is the time for farmers and their advocacy organizations to get involved.
So advises a researcher who co-authored a report stating that officials should work harder to gauge the impact on agriculture as they prepare plans required by the 2014 Sustainable Groundwater Management Act.
University of Vermont Food Systems Program assistant professor Meredith Niles and doctoral student Courtney Hammond Wagner held focus groups with 20 farmers in Yolo County, Calif., whose groundwater basin had been given a high or medium priority.
Among their findings was that growers reported feeling “written out of the process” and suggested there was no “one-size-fits-all solution to groundwater management” in the state, so a focus on local context and needs was important.
Niles, who earned her doctorate at the University of California-Davis, said little input has been received from growers even though they’ll be among the most severely impacted by any new restrictions.
Additional research is needed to gather input from farmers in diverse geographic areas, she said.
“Beyond greater geographic scope, it’s important to also capture a better understanding both of what farmers are currently doing to implement sustainability for groundwater, what they want to do in the future, and their policy preferences for implementing SGMA,” Niles said in an email.
The researchers followed up on the focus groups by conducting a survey of more than 130 farmers in Yolo County last summer and are now analyzing that data, she said.
“Additional surveys, interviews and focus groups with farmers and farm producer organizations (are) important to make sure farmers have a voice at the table,” Niles said. “After all, they are the largest anthropogenic use of water in the state.”
The survey was done as cities, counties and water districts faced a deadline last summer to set up local groundwater sustainability agencies in the state’s 127 high- and medium-priority basins. By the end of the summer, 99 percent of the basins were covered by a local GSA, a groundwater adjudication or some other sustainability plan, according to the State Water Resources Control Board.
Basins identified as critically overdrafted must have sustainability plans in place by Jan. 31, 2020, while other high- and medium-priority basins have until Jan. 31, 2022. The basins must achieve sustainability by 2042.
Niles and Wagner conducted their study after a 2016 report by UC-Berkeley water law expert Michael Kiparsky asserted that much of the success of SGMA would revolve around the “social acceptance” of policies by users. Social acceptance involves users’ “perceptions of fairness, efficacy and other value-based dimensions that can raise tensions and lack clear, unambiguous solutions,” Niles and Wagner wrote.
Social acceptance is likely to become more important as the emphasis shifts to writing sustainability plans, which will have to include measurable objectives and detailed steps for controlling groundwater use, they wrote.
In the focus groups, growers cited a variety of “drivers” for their area’s impacted groundwater basin, including an increase in permanent crops, urbanization and new agricultural development in previously uncultivated areas.
Many farmers said they hope “common sense prevails” in the sustainability plans, but some said they felt “outnumbered” in the decision-making process as most representatives were from cities or irrigation districts that did not have a lot of farmer representation, Niles and Wagner wrote.
While the growers had different perspectives on the law, some key themes emerged, including an understanding of the role of agriculture in sustainable water management, the two wrote.
Integrating themselves into the planning process will be “critical” for growers, Niles said.
“Now is probably the most important time for farmers to be involved, as the GSA is really the ones that are going to be establishing the plans for achieving groundwater sustainability,” she said. “These plans will be the plan of action for the future.”
While most local areas have achieved their goal of establishing the GSA, the “much harder work” will be to come up with the plans themselves, Niles said.
“Depending on the region, some of these plans could have significant impacts on water users and farmers, and will need to balance the interests of the public, environment and other water users,” she said.
“I think it still waits to be seen how SGMA implementation will play out as these particularly challenging issues are worked through,” she said. “This is why it’s important for farmers to be involved to play a role in shaping these policy processes.”