The water spigots on California farms will soon be twisted tighter. As the state faces a growing threat from drought, an increasing number of water agencies are planning to require flow meters on agricultural wells, part of a landmark effort to measure and constrain pumping that used to be free and unlimited. It’s a controversial step aimed at protecting water supplies that could change cultivation practices in the Golden State’s thirsty fields.
“It’s hard to be as efficient as possible if you don’t know how much water you’re using,” said Sierra Ryan, interim water resources manager for Santa Cruz County. Under the state’s tough new groundwater protection law, “we now have a legal obligation to manage our groundwater sustainably,” she said. “And we cannot manage the basin with such large uncertainties in our water use.”
And in some of the state’s most-troubled groundwater basins, water managers are not only metering farmers’ water use but charging them for it. Pajaro Valley — a landscape of soft fog, ocean breezes, and a multimillion-dollar agricultural industry — was one of the earliest adopters of metering. With no surface sources, nearly all of its water comes from the ground. Starting in the 1950s, so much water was drawn from wells that the water table plummeted, permitting seawater to seep in. In the 1980s, the state ruled that Pajaro Valley Water Management Agency take protective steps. Now 900 water meters — green cylinders, smaller than a soccer ball — are welded onto well pipes among vast fields of lettuce, artichokes, and plump strawberries.
This effort, combined with other measures, has reduced annual groundwater use by 7.8%, on average, between two five-year periods: 2006 to 2010 and 2015 and 2019, according to the agency. A recent U.S. Geological Survey analysis found the water table is generally stable, and there’s no evidence of land sinking due to groundwater extraction. “Metering tells us if we’re going in the right direction or in the wrong direction,” said Brian Lockwood, the agency’s general manager. “Hopefully, it allows people to think about water use in a different way.”
Growers are billed $246 an acre-foot, the equivalent of an acre of water one foot deep. In four years, fees will increase to $346. Those who allow their property to be flooded with stormwater, helping replenish the aquifer, can earn rebates. The agency also offers inducements, such as efficient gadgets and incentives to fallow land.
A handful of farms have refused access; their bills are estimated, with stiff penalties added.
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