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.

Drought dominates in California

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The drought dominated farm-related news in summer 2014. California's Lake Oroville was less than 40 percent of capacity and Nevada's Lake Mead was at its lowest level since the Hoover Dam was built in the 1930s, less than 1,100 feet above sea level rather than the usual 1,200 feet. 

California's State Water Resources Control Board in July 2014 instituted mandatory statewide water restrictions for the first time, allowing local water agencies to fine those who waste water up to $500. The new regulations by the SWRCB, which regulates only urban water use, limit outdoor watering to two days a week, largely prohibit washing sidewalks and driveways, and ban washing cars without a shut-off nozzle on the hose.

A University of California at Davis study estimated that 429,000 acres or five percent of California's eight million acres of irrigated land would be fallowed in 2014 due to lack of water, including 10,000 acres that would normally be planted to vegetable and melon crops. About 40 percent of California's irrigated crop land, some 3.2 million acres, are planted to trees and vines, "hardening" the demand for water in the sense that perennial crops must be watered each year.

The UCD study estimated $810 million in loss crop revenue in 2014, including $47 million from reduced vegetable and melon production, and 6,920 fewer farm jobs on crop farms, both seasonal and year-round. Another 580 farm jobs are projected to be lost in livestock.

Farmers received 6.6 million fewer acre feet of surface water in 2014, but they pumped an additional five million acre feet of ground water, leaving them with a net loss of 1.6 million acre feet and making ground water over half of the water used by California agriculture. The UCD study warned that pumping ground water faster than it is replenished will deplete ground water reserves and make agriculture less able to rely on ground water in future droughts.

In 2014, ground water provided at least two-thirds of irrigation water. The overdraft of groundwater in the San Joaquin Valley in 2014 has been estimated at one to two million acre feet, as some San Joaquin Valley wells dropped 200 feet in one year. Globally, 95 percent of the world's fresh water is groundwater.

Pumping groundwater faster than it is replenished can lead to dry wells and land subsidence. In some parts of the San Joaquin Valley, land is sinking by a foot or more each year, but the subsidence is sometimes hard to see because all land sinks together. Between 1925 and 1970, some farmland southwest of Mendota sank more than 28 feet. Farmers such as Ted Sheely, who has a 10,000-acre farm near Lemoore in the Westlands Water District, acknowledge the overdrafting of groundwater, but want more Northern California water stored and pumped south via the delta to avoid overdrafting groundwater.

Farmers continue to drill deeper to find water. Drilling an 800-foot well with a $1 million drilling rig can cost $100,000 to $500,000. Some wells on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley reportedly cost over $1 million to find water at 2,000 feet.

Some rural communities that depend on well water lost their water. Many of the 500 homes in East Porterville in Tulare county lost their water when wells went dry in summer 2014. The county has placed 5,000 gallon tanks of water at strategic spots for residents whose wells have dried up to get water.

California is the only western state that does not measure the amount of ground water that farmers pump from aquifers. However, a Sacramento Superior Court judge in July 2014 ruled that the "public trust doctrine," which asserts that the state holds all waterways for the benefit of the people, allows the state to regulate ground water pumping in the Scott River Basin in Siskiyou county to preserve sufficient water in the river for fish. The ruling is likely to be appealed.

California has 400 groundwater basins, and a package of bills, SB 1168 and 1319 as well as AB 1739, would create local groundwater sustainability agencies to register wells, monitor water-measuring devices attached to wells, and regulate groundwater pumping and impose fees on well owners to finance the agencies' activities. If local agencies fail to act, the state could intervene, especially in the 127 basins that are a high priority for regulation because of overdraft or contamination.

Proponents of the bills say that the cumulative overdraft of groundwater is equivalent to the entire amount of water stored in Lake Tahoe, so that action is urgently required. Opponents fear new state controls will limit the freedom of farmers to decide what to plant.

In California, pre-1914 "riparian" (first in time, first in right) water rights are senior to post-1914 "junior" water rights. As a result, the availability and the price of water used in agriculture varies widely, so that water-intensive crops such as rice are grown near orchards whose owners are willing to pay far more than rice is worth for water to keep their trees alive. 

Water marketing is difficult. Some water districts do not allow their farmer-members to sell water outside the district, fearing that if they allowed water to be sold, a court could decide that farmers did not "need" the water, potentially opening the door to environmentalists or urban water districts that want more water.

Farmers have traditionally argued that the solution to insufficient water is to build more dams and reservoirs so that there is enough water for all. California Proposition 1, the Water Quality, Supply, and Infrastructure Improvement Act of 2014 (AB 1471) on the November 2014 ballot, would authorize up to $7.1 billion in general obligation bonds for state water projects, including $2.7 billion for water storage projects, dams and reservoirs.


This post was an excerpt of the most recent Rural Migration News published in October 2014

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@primal.ucdavis.eduCurrent 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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