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As Drought Sets In, Communities Hope SGMA can Change the Future of Water

FRESNO COUNTY

Esther Espinoza wakes up each morning unsure if she will have water that day. 

The uncertainty has limited her gardening, so she keeps very few plants at her home. For drinking, she makes regular trips to purchase bottled water from the store in Riverdale. The well that she relies on is contaminated so she doesn’t trust the water is safe for her family. 

She has figured out some routines: If she needs to do two loads of laundry, one must be done early in the morning and the other late at night to prevent their family from running out of water. 

Espinoza has not had reliable access to water in 12 years. She is a longtime resident of Riverdale, a small community south of Fresno with an estimated population of 3,000. 

Espinoza’s residential well in Riverdale, CA.

The first time Espinoza lost water, her youngest daughter was only 3 years old. Now, her daughter is 15 and the water has not improved. Like Espinoza’s well, residential well water in the San Joaquin Valley has often been unreliable and contaminated.

About 26,800 residents in the San Joaquin Valley rely on domestic wells or very small water systems for drinking water. But these shallow groundwater wells are threatened by overpumping and drought. 

The water supply residents do have is some of the most contaminated drinking water in the country, according to the US-EPA.

On top of that, the amount of available groundwater is running out. Communities like Riverdale struggle with dry wells. Likewise, small farmers with shallow wells risk losing access to water, putting their livelihoods at risk. Recent news of a drought only amplifies the worry of those who call the Valley home.

About 26,800 residents in the San Joaquin Valley rely on domestic wells or very small water systems for drinking water. But these shallow groundwater wells are threatened by overpumping and drought. 

With a drought setting in once again in California, residents like Espinoza are finding themselves looking to laws like the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act as hope for a safer water future. 

In 2014, the California legislature passed the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, commonly known as SGMA, which requires the protection of groundwater in California. If done right, SGMA may finally protect water resources, so residents have reliable access to water for their most essential needs. 

For the law to work as intended, a vital component is that local and state agencies prioritize the health and security of residents.

“Making sure that families have running water should be a primary focus of groundwater management,” said Amanda Monaco, Water Policy Coordinator at the Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability. “California passed the Human Right to Water in 2006, which says that every resident has the right to clean, safe, accessible and affordable water in their homes for drinking and sanitation.

Monaco said that, unfortunately, Groundwater Sustainability Plans continue to focus on preserving the agricultural industry at the expense of families having running water. She said without community prioritization, the plans will continue to allow families’ wells to go dry without addressing the impacts.

“We’re relying on the state Department of Water Resources and good local actors to set a higher standard, and to protect the Human Right to Water,” Monaco said. 

What is groundwater?

Groundwater is found under the surface of the earth, and fills spaces between rocks and soil particles. Every winter, rain and snowfall add to it. This water accumulates in rivers and canals, and as it flows it fills the land with water. The water sinks down into the aquifers and becomes groundwater. 

Throughout the years, more water has been used than what is provided by snow and rain. The levels of groundwater have diminished so much in some places that it has led to a situation called “overdraft,” or outright abuse, of the groundwater. Many of these places are in the San Joaquin Valley.

The regional overuse is the worry of families like Espinoza’s. Like the last drought, wells will once again go dry with few options to get through the emergency, which will likely last all summer. Espinoza’s neighbor just saw their well go dry, and she fears that her family’s well will be next.

How SGMA works

SGMA mandates that local agencies in areas where groundwater is most depleted do three important things:

First, local counties, cities, and water agencies must come together to form Groundwater Sustainability Agencies (GSAs). Every agency is responsible for making sure that groundwater use in its area is “sustainable” in 20 years.

Next, the GSAs must prepare a Groundwater Sustainability Plan (GSPs) to establish policies and implement projects that protect groundwater.

Once these plans are approved, the GSAs must implement their GSP and reach “sustainability” in 20 years.

The online tool GSPDryWells.com shows that over 9600 domestic wells are likely to go dry in the San Joaquin Valley in the next 20 years due to local groundwater management policies. See how your community is affected using this interactive map. 

Communities are alarmed that the agencies have so far chosen to continue upholding the existing power structure by prioritizing the water desires of huge international corporations farms, and not the needs of our local farmers and families. 

The GSAs have the freedom to decide what “sustainable” means for their community. This means that each GSA has the power to determine how much worse groundwater conditions become, and therefore how much damage will be inflicted on those who depend on groundwater. 

All too often, this definition does not reflect what the community needs to survive. 

Like many residents, Espinoza’s family depends on a shallow well for their water. The local Groundwater Sustainability Plan has set its minimum thresholds under the level of her well, so her well will go dry. In contrast, large farms and big cities have very deep wells which will allow them to continue pumping water. 

To Espinoza, this is deeply unjust.

“While I know that they [neighboring farms] have to harvest their crops, to me it’s a weak system,” Espinoza said in Spanish. “They are wasting lots of water and this affects all of our families who live near their farms”. 

Most of the residents of communities like Riverdale work for these farms, putting them in a difficult situation.

“We need to work for them. If we don’t, we don’t eat. Therefore we are within a system driven by water. We are trapped,” she said. 

She continued on to explain that many families are living below the poverty line and cannot get up and move to an area with more water. 

Hope for a new water future

The changing conditions in the San Joaquin Valley provide an opportunity to create a regenerative economy and community that supports residents. State and local agencies can use SGMA to center frontline residents and farmers in their GSP plans, and create conditions for local industries to shift to meet our changing climate and better support the community.

As California enters a new drought, this transition is needed now more than ever. We believe that SGMA means hope for the prosperous future of rural communities like Riverdale. The Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability engages residents in monitoring local GSP implementation activity and advocates to water agencies for equitable solutions.

The California Department of Water Resources (DWR) oversees the activities of local GSAs. We need DWR to require GSAs to protect drinking water, and help residents like Espinoza when their wells go dry.

Now more than ever, we need pressure on local GSAs to protect communities’ drinking water. Find your local GSA by searching for your address on this interactive map, and get engaged.

If your well went dry and need immediate assistance call 559-802-1685 or email emergencyservices@selfhelpenterprises.org.

Story produced by Allie Larman, Leadership Counsel intern and student at UC Davis.

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