Will the Cornucopia Run Dry?

This weeks blog is offered by Carsten Pran and Amanda Padden, who are Robertson Scholars at Duke University

California’s Central Valley, which produces nearly half of the fruits, nuts and vegetables for the United States, is just now emerging from its worst drought in over a millennium. Before the region will recover from this calamity, another potentially more devastating drought is on the horizon. See: https://blogs.nicholas.duke.edu/citizenscientist/drought-and-desertification/

After compiling several climate models, tree-ring data spanning 1000 years, and current and projected weather data, climate scientists predict the southwestern United States is nearing a global-warming exacerbated drought of record-breaking length and intensity.

With greatly reduced surface water available, many residents and farmers have turned to underground stores of water to prevent economic and agricultural collapse. Extreme dependency on groundwater has resulted in dry residential wells, decreased crop yields, and land subsidence that damages infrastructure throughout the Valley.

In response to destructive groundwater overdraft, California passed a sweeping bill called the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA), which is meant to bring groundwater withdrawal rates to ‘sustainable’ levels by the year 2040. The act calls on regions within the twenty-one ‘critically overdrafted’ basins to submit plans on how they will increase water supply and decrease water demand in these areas.

Under SGMA, regional Groundwater Sustainability Agencies (GSAs) are charged to develop extensive groundwater management plans. Importantly, GSAs must engage with stakeholders during plan development. The law outlines ten stakeholder groups that GSAs must consider, including “Disadvantaged Communities (DAC), including but not limited to, those served by private domestic wells or small community water systems” (Dobbin and Lubell 2019).

The SGMA does not specify how GSAs must consider the interests of disadvantaged communities, thus allowing engagement with these vulnerable communities to be at the GSAs own discretion. Without clear guidelines for engagement, SGMA allows policymakers to continue to overlook and neglect unincorporated rural communities.

Unincorporated areas, which are largely rural, low-income, and predominantly inhabited by people of color, have persisted throughout decades of governmental neglect, despite a lack of adequate infrastructure, and a tax base that is too small to address developmental obstacles.

Without reliable water infrastructure, these communities often rely on drinking water from domestic wells that are frequently contaminated with agricultural byproducts and dangerous chemicals such as arsenic. The federal Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) prohibits such contaminants in public water supplies, but the rigorous testing of the SDWA does not apply to domestic wells, including those in DACs.

State, regional and local policymakers continue to consistently overlook DACs, as SGMA’s admirable goal of stakeholder outreach falls lamentably short. One study found that “an incorporated DAC is more than four times more likely to participate than an unincorporated counterpart”. With the dilemma of their tainted water supply largely ignored, farmworkers in unincorporated communities whose labor is deemed “essential” endanger themselves to protect agricultural production.

Many California farm workers live in DAC communities. The hidden faces that keep America’s cornucopia bountiful are confronting governmental neglect and mounting vulnerabilities. If their struggles are not heard, the pillars that prop up the food security in the U.S. may dry and crumble as another drought descends on the Central Valley.


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