Limits on water use are shaking up California agriculture California's farmers, the country's biggest producers of fruits and vegetables, are facing a major shakeup. A new law limits their access to water from the state's depleted aquifers.

New protections for California's aquifers are reshaping the state's Central Valley

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California is making an effort to conserve its groundwater. And that has a big effect on the California farmers who use that groundwater while feeding a good part of this country. NPR's Dan Charles reports.

DAN CHARLES, BYLINE: In California's Central Valley, right alongside the fields and orchards, you see big pipes coming out of the earth delivering gushers of water from aquifers hundreds of feet underground.


CHARLES: Farmers have pumped billions of tons of water from their wells this summer. The water table has fallen so much, hundreds of smaller wells that people rely on have gone dry, like Esther Espinoza's.

ESTHER ESPINOZA: I see how the big pumps are pumping a lot of water. And I don't have water. So it's something so sad for me.

CHARLES: She and her family outside the town of Riverdale now depend on water from a big, black tank in their front yard, which a local nonprofit fills up each week.

ESPINOZA: We don't have water for nothing, for the bathroom or my kitchen. So it's something that is necessary but we don't have.

CHARLES: For a hundred years, it's been open season on the aquifer in California. Anybody could dig a well on their land and pump as much as they wanted. Farmers got most of it. But even farmers understand that has to change, farmers like Rick Cosyns. I met Cosyns in August in the middle of his almond orchards near the town of Madera. Very sadly, he died two weeks later.

RICK COSYNS: It's unsustainable to continue overdrafting the aquifer in the manner that we are. It's just a race to the bottom.

CHARLES: There's now a state law gradually going into effect over the next two decades that's supposed to end over-pumping. It says the aquifer is like a bank account, where withdrawals can't exceed deposits. That law is creating winners and some big losers. Cosyns' farm is one of the fortunate ones because it usually has another source of water. He showed me a big ditch built to deliver water from a reservoir created by a dam on the San Joaquin River 25 miles away.

COSYNS: I'd sure feel a lot better if this was full of water - most years, it is.

CHARLES: When there's enough rain and snow, this farm can use that water to irrigate orchards and also let some of the water just sink back into the ground, eventually replenishing the aquifer. It's a way to keep that underground bank account roughly in balance - making water deposits when there's plenty from the river, pumping water out when there's a drought. So the new law shouldn't hurt this farm too much. The people who've been causing the problem, Cosyns said, are other farmers nearby.

COSYNS: The surrounding areas are pumping that water out from under us.

CHARLES: Those farmers own land that doesn't get water from the reservoir. They pump from the aquifer every year, making withdrawals, but no deposits.

COSYNS: We've made the investments. And others are getting into our bank account that we save for.

CHARLES: When you say that directly to somebody who's been pumping the water, how do they react?

COSYNS: Like it's their right to do that. But we've come to that day of reckoning when that's not going to be the case.

CHARLES: This is the division in California agriculture right now as the groundwater law comes into force, between farmers who get water from California's rivers and reservoirs and those who rely completely on their wells. That second group likely will have to cut their pumping drastically. And they may have to stop growing some of their crops. According to some estimates, anywhere from five to 10% of the state's irrigated farmland will go dry. And that does not sit well with farmers like David Roberts in Tulare County. He shows me a hillside of citrus trees that depend entirely on wells.

DAVID ROBERTS: We're going to turn the water crisis into a food crisis because we can't replicate the San Joaquin Valley anywhere else in the United States.

CHARLES: This is the only place with the climate and the soil to grow more than 400 different crops, he says. And when consumers realize what they're missing, he expects a backlash.

ROBERTS: This ground will come back into production one way or another.

CHARLES: Oh, you really think so?

ROBERTS: The United States cannot be without the San Joaquin Valley producing fruit. They can't be.

CHARLES: Roberts wants the government to step in to deliver more water from rivers and dams to make up for the lost groundwater, keep more land in production. Other water experts say that's not feasible and also not necessary. Some of the valley's crops can grow other places - almost half a million acres of corn, for instance, grown to feed dairy cows. In fact, some experts think the future for the valley looks bright, just different. Jon Reiter, for instance, a consultant to some large-scale farmers in the valley.

JON REITER: I actually think it's going to be a better future than the past has been.

CHARLES: People are finding creative ways to adapt, he says. Farmers are getting ready to capture a lot more water in years when it rains. They'll flood their fields and replenish the aquifer. That'll make up for part of the groundwater that's now off-limits. Some land will have to stop growing crops.

REITER: But we're going to take that land and put it to other uses.

CHARLES: Profitable uses, he says. The Central Valley is a great place for solar power. Farmers may even get paid to turn fallowed fields into habitat for birds and lizards and native shrubs. Nobody knows exactly what the Central Valley will look like when this all shakes out. Dozens of local committees are in charge of enforcing the new groundwater law. Soapy Mulholland, a rancher and conservationist who's on half a dozen of these committees, says, they include a much bigger range of voices.

SOAPY MULHOLLAND: Disadvantaged communities, you know, farmers who are considering the environment. All those players are at the table. And that's a good thing.

CHARLES: The fate of the aquifer won't be decided anymore by whoever can drill the deepest well.

Dan Charles, NPR News.

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