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Commentary: Dry year intensifies focus on California groundwater

Issue Date: March 17, 2021
By Danny Merkley
Danny Merkley
Believing groundwater aquifers are best understood and managed locally, Farm Bureau has advocated for local control and produced materials to help members understand groundwater law.

Each March, those of us involved in water policy commemorate National Groundwater Awareness Week. Because groundwater represents such a precious resource to California farmers and ranchers, Farm Bureau works to promote groundwater awareness throughout the year.

In 2014, the state Legislature passed the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, or SGMA, the most sweeping water management legislation in 100 years. Since then, the California Farm Bureau has been assisting members with understanding, engaging and complying with SGMA.

Groundwater aquifers are best understood and managed locally; therefore, the key to successfully implementing SGMA lies in maintaining local control, something Farm Bureau vigorously advocates. In addition, we have stressed that to reduce dependence on groundwater, we must expand surface water storage and recharge our groundwater aquifers when excess water is available.

Now, it's up to us to pay careful attention as SGMA progresses. It will require action to manage groundwater at the local level—and that's where Farm Bureau's strength lies. Few other organizations have the grassroots structure Farm Bureau has.

Unless March somehow makes up for the lack of rain and snow thus far this winter, we could see an increased dependence on groundwater this growing season. Groundwater should be our savings account to get us through such dry periods. In farming areas served by federal and state water projects, farmers may see only 5-10% of contract supplies for surface water this year.

As greater restrictions have been placed on surface water supplies—and the reliability of those supplies has become more circumscribed—cities, rural regions and farms have become more dependent on groundwater. We all recognize we must reduce overreliance on groundwater, but no reasonable person can argue that California can continue to grow our economy and healthful food and farm products without addressing our overall water supply needs.

Farmers of all sizes and of all commodities, in every region of our state, have seen their water supplies reduced well beyond the natural effects of climate or weather. Current political and regulatory policies have, in part, contributed to many of the groundwater issues we are experiencing today, including critically overdrafted basins in some areas. Though SGMA attempts to address the symptoms of our groundwater issues, it overlooks some foundational problems and leaves it to local users to figure out how they close any supply gaps they may face.

The enactment of SGMA sent a message to those of us in agriculture that we must remain unified. Production of healthful food, fiber and farm products depends on water, stored in the ground or above it in surface reservoirs. Our state's entire population also depends on that water, and on the food and farm products we farmers produce.

Farmers and ranchers from throughout the state must put any regional or commodity differences aside. We must work together to pursue more new storage and better management of existing storage; we must work together on implementation of SGMA; we must work together to pursue every reasonable alternative to solve our state's ongoing water crisis.

Just last week, the state Department of Water Resources released a draft of its report called California's Groundwater—Update 2020, also known as Bulletin-118. This update provides an overview of statewide groundwater activities, compiles technical information and data from 2003 to 2020 and takes into account the passage of SGMA in 2014. Additionally, the update discusses the condition of the state's groundwater, which is especially important as California faces a critically dry water year. Farm Bureau will review and analyze the draft update; the public can comment through April 26.

Recognizing the importance of groundwater, the difficulties of understanding SGMA, its complexities and its requirements, Farm Bureau developed a series of brochures as a resource for farmers and ranchers.

In addition to two main brochures providing general background, titled "SGMA and Understanding the Law" and "Groundwater Hydrology," we have developed four inserts, each devoted to a different possible "undesirable result" under SGMA. Two additional inserts are being developed and will soon be available.

The brochures may be found on the California Farm Bureau website at; choose the link for Water and look for the tab labeled SGMA Brochures. In addition, glossy, color prints of all the materials are available at county Farm Bureau offices or via request to

California farmers, ranchers and landowners remain acutely aware of the importance of groundwater, every week and every day.

(Danny Merkley is director of water resources for the California Farm Bureau. He may be reached at

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.

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