The San Joaquin Valley is the agricultural powerhouse of the United States and California. California accounts for an eighth of U.S. farm sales, largely because it produces high value fruit and nut, vegetable and melon, and horticultural specialty (FVH) crops such as nursery products and flowers. Over three-fourths of the state's $37 billion in farm sales in 2010 were crop commodities, and almost 90 percent of the $28 billion in California crop sales represented labor-intensive FVH commodities.

About half of California's farm sales and farm employment are produced in the eight-county San Joaquin Valley with four million residents that stretches from Stockton in the north to Bakersfield in the south. The leading U.S. farm county is Fresno, which had farm sales of almost $6 billion in 2010.

California farm sales thriving amid drought

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California endured its fourth year of drought in 2015, but farm sales appear headed for another record. Water was shifted from low-value crops such as alfalfa to higher-value nuts, and prices for many farm commodities were strong.

California agriculture "normally" uses about 33 million acre feet of water. In 2015, agriculture used 30 million acre feet. Two-thirds of the nine million fewer acre feet of surface water available in 2015 was replaced with groundwater pumped from underground aquifers. Groundwater is normally 40 percent of the water used by agriculture, and 60 percent in dry years.

The water in underground aquifers accumulated over centuries, and cannot be replaced quickly. California in 2014 became the last western state to regulate groundwater pumping, enacting laws that created local groundwater sustainability agencies to register private wells, monitor the water-measuring devices that must be attached to pumps, and regulate groundwater pumping. The agencies are financed by fees charged to farmers and other water users.

Conflicts erupted as the water-basin agencies began their work in 2015. Farmers acknowledge that the status quo is not sustainable, as land sinks from ever-more pumping of groundwater. However, efforts to regulate groundwater use in San Luis Obispo county, which enacted an ordinance in 2013 to prevent groundwater depletion, have been challenged by a San Louis Obispo group that wants a judge to decide who can draw how much water from the basin rather than leaving the decision to local agencies.

Some speculate that a slow path to effective groundwater management, as judges divide water from aquifers, could provide an opportunity for large and well-capitalized farmers to displace smaller farmers who cannot afford to drill deep wells.

Up to three percent of farm land could be fallowed eventually because of restrictions on pumping groundwater (California has about nine million irrigated acres), most on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley, where over pumping of groundwater, high levels of salt in soil, and land subsidence was noticeable even before the 2012-15 drought. There are predictions that fallowed farm land could be used for solar farms to generate electricity.

California has 1,400 federal and state dams and 13,000 reservoirs, and is debating whether to build more to store more water. The federal Shasta Dam, the largest in the state, was designed to be 18.5 feet higher. If the dam were raised by 18.5 feet, its 4.6 million acre feet of storage would expand by 13 percent. However, environmentalists, Indians, and others oppose raising the height of Shasta Dam, saying that the answer to water woes is conservation.

California has 411 water districts, some public and some private. Urban water districts have been required to reduce water consumption by 36 percent, but are allowed to devise their own means to reduce water use. Some districts are fining customers who use too much water, while others are issuing warning notices.

The New York Times profiled the Westlands Water District December 31, 2015, emphasizing that the WWD is a $100 million a year operation aimed at keeping water flowing via the Central Valley Project, a system of 20 dams and 500 miles of canals that moves water from north to south. Laws in 1992 that reserved some northern California water for fish have reduced pumping via the Sacramento-San Joaquin river delta, reducing the amount of water flowing to WWD farmers.

To preserve its access to federally subsidized water, the WWD spends heavily to influence Congress and uses the courts in efforts to win more water. Most WWD contributions go to Republicans, but Senator Dianne Feinsten (D-CA) has been a significant booster of WWD efforts to obtain more federal water while adhering to environmental safeguards.

The demand for water in the WWD and elsewhere in the San Joaquin Valley has "hardened" or become less flexible as perennial crops such as almonds and pistachios have replaced cotton. Trees must be watered each year for 20 or 30 years, while fields of cotton can be fallowed in water-short years. The WWD finances many groups that call for more water for the San Joaquin Valley.

This post was an excerpt of the most recent Rural Migration News published in January 2016.


Rural Migration News summarizes the most important migration-related issues affecting agriculture and rural America. Topics are grouped by category: Rural America, Farm Workers, Immigration, Other and Resources.


There are two editions of Rural Migration News. The paper edition has about 10,000 words and the email version about 20,000 words.


Distribution is by email. If you wish to subscribe, send your email address to ruralmigrationnews-subscribe [at} Current and back issues may be accessed at


The paper edition is available by mail for $30 domestic and $50 foreign for one year and $55 and $95 for a two-year subscription. Make checks payable to Migration Dialogue and send to: Philip Martin, Department of Ag and Resource Economics, University of California, Davis, California 95616 USA.

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Philip Martin is Professor of Agricultural and Resource Economics at the University of California- Davis, chair of the University of California's Comparative Immigration and Integration Program, and editor of the monthly Migration News and the quarterly Rural Migration News.


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