Agriculture and the Environment

California Farmers are Hoarding the State’s Water Resources

Corporate agriculture has captured water regulation at everyone else’s expense

Isa Badia Bellinger

April 22, 2023

As you drive down Interstate-5, cutting across California from north to south through the Central Valley, large signs staked into the ground along the road’s shoulder disrupt the monotonous view. Some say, “Stop the Congress created dust bowl!” while others ask, “Is GROWING FOOD wasting water?” Meanwhile, the landscape that you encounter out of the car window is one of either endless dense, green fields of growing crops or lined with orchards of fruit and nut trees. It certainly doesn’t look as if these fields are suffering a shortage of water. What does become clear very quickly is that water is a contentious issue in this region. In fact, water is both the main contributor and the greatest obstacle to the Central Valley’s primary industry of agriculture. And those who shout the loudest that they’re being deprived of access to water are the same people who are running industrial-scale farms as far as the eye can see.

What you won’t see from the freeway are the communities throughout the Valley whose wells have run dry. The people who now must truck in water if they want to have any in their homes. Often, they are located right across from large, verdant farms, or cities with municipal water lines that won’t reach their neighborhoods. These communities are often made up of the very farmworkers upon whom the Central Valley’s agricultural industry depends, and they are largely immigrant, Latinx and low-income.

California’s inland region, known as the Central Valley, can be broadly divided into two main watersheds: the Sacramento Valley in the north and the San Joaquin Valley in the south. It is so large that it encompasses 19 of California’s 58 counties and reaches from Mount Shasta in the north all the way down to Bakersfield in the south, stopping just short of reaching Los Angeles. Known as the “salad bowl of the country,” this region has very rich, fertile soil that grows more than half of the country’s fruits, vegetables and nuts. At the same time, the Central Valley is home to the dark underbelly of California’s gleaming wealth: 24% of the population lives below the poverty line; air pollution from smog, fertilizers and pesticides has led to cities in the Central Valley occupying the top 3 rankings of most polluted cities in the U.S.; and of the farmworkers who actually grow all of that food, at least 45% are food insecure.

A region this large, growing that much food, is highly dependent on the one element the Central Valley lacks: water.

A region this large, growing that much food, is highly dependent on the one element the Central Valley lacks: water. According to the California Department of Water Resources, 75% of California’s water falls in the northern third of the state, but 80% of the state’s water needs come from the southern two thirds of the state – including the Central Valley. To combat this problem during the valley’s agricultural beginnings, when water rights were divvied up, farmland got a disproportionate amount of the state’s water supply. This allocation continues today, as on average, agriculture uses 40% of the state’s water. During drought years, when everyone else is forced to reduce their water consumption, agriculture’s proportion of the entire state’s water usage only increases. Historically, the arid Central Valley’s need for water was met by pulling surface water (water from rivers and streams) and pumping from wells, drawing what’s known as groundwater from underground aquifers. In the 1930s, a New Deal solution to the problem was built in the form of the Central Valley Project, a massive Bureau of Reclamation infrastructure that stores water from rivers and rainfall in wetter northern California in reservoirs, and sends it south for distribution to irrigate the Central Valley’s farmland and southern California cities. In addition, there is the State Water Project which operates similarly. One could argue that modern California is built around the transportation of water to farms and cities – nowhere remains untouched by the state’s need to relocate water.