World Ag Expo: Water seminar lands with a thud as speaker details “devastating” amount of acreage expected to go out of production

February 13, 2024
Lisa McEwen, SJV Water
by Lisa McEwen, SJV Water
The World Ag Expo in Tulare has millions of square feet featuring ag implements, displays, seminars and more. It runs Feb. 13-15. Courtesy World Ag Expo Facebook page
Lisa McEwen, SJV Water
Lisa McEwen, SJV Water

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The sun was shining and blue skies reigned over the 57th World Ag Expo in Tulare County Tuesday but inside seminar trailer No. 2 the mood was gloomy to dismal as panelists discussed the San Joaquin Valley’s water outlook.

The upshot is that with surface supplies from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta shrinking and increased groundwater pumping restrictions looming, more than 900,000 acres in the Central Valley will have to go out of production, according to Michael Ming, a broker with Alliance Ag Services LLC, which has been tracking ag land values with respect to water for nearly 20 years.

The bulk of that fallowing will be in Kern, Kings and Tulare counties, he said.

“Upwards of 625,000 acres,” Ming said, will need to be taken out of farming in those counties over the next 15 years to comply with the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, which requires depleted aquifers come back into balance by 2040.

Ming predicted at least 250,000 of that total will be fallowed in Kern County. That’s about 28% of Kern’s currently harvested acres, per the 2022 Kern County Crop Report.

Yes, the numbers are alarming, he said to the packed, silent room. 

Then he joked that he’d brought friends to handle any rock throwing.

Alliance Ag report on predicted land fallowing by agricultural water district in Kern County.

The numbers come from a 2022 internal analysis by RRG Nature Based Solutions, which used the Department of Water Resources’ 2018 Crop Survey and review of submitted Groundwater Sustainability Plans as of February 2022. (It did not take into account fallowing caused by unrelated factors such as changing commodity prices.).

He said the biggest culprit is “hostile state water policies” that have curtailed imported surface water from the State Water Project, which brings supplies from the delta to towns and cities in southern California via the California Aqueduct along Interstate 5.

Environmental and water quality regulations have required more water to run through the delta, which has crimped supplies sent south.

The trend has gotten worse over the years, Ming said. 

At this point, ag districts with State Water Contracts can count on just 34% of their contracted amounts, on average.

Alliance Ag LLC report detailing State Water Project deliveries.

Areas reliant on State Water Project supplies will take the brunt of fallowing, Ming predicted.

On Kern’s west side where growers rely mainly on state water, districts will likely have to fallow between 35% and 50% of irrigated acres, Ming said. That includes the Berrenda Mesa, Belridge, Lost Hills and Semitropic ag districts.

“And I think it could go higher, except for districts with large farming operations that can bring water to bear,” he said. 

That means growers big enough to be able to consolidate their water sources to the most productive ground or that can afford to buy water on the open market. In drought years, water has escalated to more than $1,500 per acre foot, something out of reach for most smaller farmers.

The lack of water security is also a driving force on land valuations.

Even in districts such as Arvin-Edison Water Storage District, which contracts for federal water, land prices have dropped recently from $22,000 an acre to an average of about $17,000 an acre. And that $17,000 price is for farmers in the district that both have wells and buy the district’s contracted water. Values go down from there.

Landowners whose parcels are not in a water district, called “white lands” because they appear as white on maps, are the real canaries. 

Land prices have dropped from $15,000 to $4,000 an acre, Ming said, and he anticipates them going even lower. 

“Most of these lands will go fallow.”

Other speakers on Tuesday included Ellen Hanak of the Public Policy Institute of California, who highlighted land use alternatives, such as converting to solar farms.

Consultant Stacie Ann Silva of Altum Aqua Logic dissected SGMA implementation for the many farmers in the room.

“I want to help you all understand the magnitude of the problem we are dealing with,” she said. “We have to, as a collective, get from where we are today in pumping which is 2.8 acre-feet per acre on average to sustainable yield. Surface water on top of that is helpful but if you’re in an area without access to surface water, that’s the future you’re planning toward.”

Sustainable yield is the amount of water that naturally enters a GSA  and varies from region to region.

Aaron Fukuda of Tulare Irrigation District discussed his district’s shift toward implementation of its groundwater sustainability plan versus building more recharge projects. 

Finally, Johnny Amaral, chief operating officer of Friant Water Authority, joined Atlas Water CEO Eric Averett and other speakers for a question and answer session on topics ranging from groundwater recharge to continued subsidence of the Friant-Kern Canal.

Lisa McEwen, SJV Water

SJV Water is an independent, nonprofit news site dedicated to covering water in the San Joaquin Valley. Get inside access to SJV Water by becoming a member.


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