San Joaquin Valley water users seek common ground

September 06, 2022 | Water in the West | News

Tom Johnson

A diverse group representing competing interests believes it is on the verge of something long thought impossible: an agreement that guides sustainable water use across California's San Joaquin Valley.

Born out of a September 2020 "Uncommon Dialogues" session, the San Joaquin Valley Water Collaborative Action Program (CAP) has assembled a framework for cooperation that engenders feelings of optimism among participants. Tim Quinn, the group's co-facilitator, said an agreement on policy recommendations could be endorsed by stakeholders as early as next month.

Progress hasn't always been easy. For decades, water policy in the Valley has been characterized by conflict and strife, as farmers, water districts, and environmental protection advocates fought battles in political arenas and the courts. A years-long drought — and growing uncertainty brought on by climate change — have increased tensions and injected a sense of urgency into discussions, leading all sides to seek common ground.

“Everyone acknowledges that current water use patterns are unsustainable," said Quinn, a former Landreth Visiting Fellow with Water in the West. "Everyone understands that change is coming."

A paper Quinn wrote while at Stanford, 40 years of California Water Policy: What Worked, What Didn't, and Lessons for the Futureserved as a catalyst for new dialogue and spurred more than 50 Valley water managers, policy professionals, and others to attend the Uncommon Dialogues session. The session, co-chaired by Water in the West Director Barton "Buzz" Thompson and former Fresno mayor and current CEO of the Central Valley Community Foundation Ashley Swearengin, produced thoughtful discussions that by many accounts exceeded participants' expectations. The experience renewed interest in addressing the San Joaquin Valley's water challenges and generated broad support among attendees to work toward developing a collaborative action plan that addresses the needs of all stakeholders. 

CAP participants devised a structure that gave equal weight to five stakeholder groups — safe drinking water and disadvantaged communities (DACs), agricultural producers, local governments, environmental groups, and water agencies — and spent the next year crafting vision statements and defining the challenges they sought to address. Then they spent another 10 months negotiating and drafting a "term sheet," or a set of recommended solutions to the problems they identified earlier.

Abundance amid scarcity

The San Joaquin Valley's water challenges are intertwined with its farming legacy. The Valley is the state's largest growing region, accounting for about 50 percent of California's agricultural production. Yet, local water supplies are limited, particularly in the southern reaches of the Valley. Many farmers supplement crop irrigation with water imported from the Sacramento–San Joaquin River Delta. In other areas, farmers rely heavily on pumping groundwater from aquifers that lie beneath the valley floor. 

For years, water has been pumped at rates that exceed replenishment, a practice known as overdrafting. A resulting decline in stored groundwater has caused levels of irrigation and drinking water wells to fall precipitously, increasing energy use and pumping costs, degrading ecosystems, and depleting reserves that could help the region cope with future droughts. Thousands of domestic and agricultural wells have stopped producing water altogether. Excessive pumping has also resulted in land subsidence, causing damage to regional infrastructure, including canals that deliver water across the state.

Public Policy Institute of California has called the Valley “ground zero for many of California's most difficult water management problems, including groundwater overdraft, drinking water contamination, and declines in habitat and native species."

Agriculture dominates San Joaquin Valley land and water use. Farming generates about $3 billion in annual economic activity through the production of almonds, walnuts, grapes, milk, and other products. A large portion of the Valley's 4 million residents depends on some aspect of agricultural production for their livelihoods.

In recent years, the Valley has seen substantial growth in urban centers, such as Fresno, Bakersfield, Stockton, and Modesto. As municipal and industrial water demands have grown, tension between groups has increased. Disadvantaged communities have felt the pinch, too, as their access to safe drinking water has been compromised. Since most of the Valley's water is consumed by agriculture, CAP participants acknowledge that any solutions to the region's water woes will require a change in agricultural practices.

“The Valley's farm economy has not embraced sustainable water policies for half a century or more,” Quinn said. “But the agricultural community understands that for water use to reach sustainable levels, irrigation demand needs to be downsized." 

A way forward

For some farmers, downsizing demand could involve switching to less water-intensive crops. But for others, it could mean taking land out of production altogether. If current CAP discussions become a reality, the transition could represent the most significant land use change in the Valley's history. CAP participants want to see that happen in a way that avoids disruption to communities and their economies. Doing so, they believe, would require developing a Valley-wide plan and implementing a coordinated land use repurposing strategy that transitions land to other beneficial uses as it comes out of production. All of this, Quinn said, would likely be done in cooperation with the California Department of Conservation's newly created Multibenefit Land Repurposing Agency.

Quinn called agriculture's willingness to support land repurposing “a great big gift," one that he said is matched by environmentalists’ willingness to support bringing more water to the Valley from the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta in times when the Delta is under flood conditions, and in ways that are highly protective to the environment and other water uses. For example, Quinn said that water delivered under flood conditions could be spread over fields and allowed to infiltrate deep into the soil, helping to replenish aquifers.

"As we repurpose land, that creates a lot of opportunities for what the land becomes — and the value it could generate for the Valley,” Quinn said. “A lot of what we want to do involves environmental restoration. We could be talking about the largest environmental restoration program in the country.”

Other potential uses for land repurposed away from agriculture include parks, recreation areas, groundwater replenishment facilities, and low-impact solar energy farms. 

While CAP is flush with ideas, it cannot directly enact the changes it seeks to make. The group has no power to make decisions or set policy; it isn't a legal entity or even a nonprofit organization; in fact, it doesn't formally exist outside of draft agreements, meeting notes, and mission statements. Quinn said CAP's power lies in the coalition they have built. Their recommendations, he said, will carry weight because they are supported by the right players.


"We have the power of unprecedented cooperation, which can be used in the political arena to make things happen,” said Quinn. "We also have the backing of the Department of Water Resources and the State Water Resources Control Board. We have support from the Department of Food and Agriculture and the governor's office. These groups like what we're doing. They want us to be successful."


While obstacles remain, Quinn said he believes the San Joaquin Valley is on the verge of a historic moment. He's optimistic that CAP participants will come together in October to sign the group's term sheet. CAP also has several grant applications in the works, the success of which should be known in November. With new funding and an agreement among stakeholders, CAP would be in a position to guide the region's anticipated transformation.


"Everybody involved is really committed,” Quinn said. "We've got the best people in the Valley working on this process. If you build a strong, broad, powerful coalition, that is what drives policymaking machinery in the direction that you want it to go."


Media Contact:

Tom Johnson, Water in the West at Stanford University: (970) 215-3459;