Photographer: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

The Dried-Up Heart of California's Water Dilemma

America's most productive agricultural region struggles for sustainability.

California's Tulare Lake was once the largest body of freshwater west of the Mississippi. It was shallow, and it varied in size from year to year and season to season. But it was home to lots of salmon, turtles, otters and even, in the latter half of the 19th century, a few schooners and steamboats. It was also at the heart of a 400,000-acre network of lakes and wetlands ("the river of the lakes," the painter and naturalist John W. Audubon -- John J.'s son -- called it in 1849) that in wet years overflowed into the San Joaquin River to the north, making it possible to travel by boat from Bakersfield to San Francisco. 1

Then industrious settlers -- and, it should be noted, industrial-scale cattle empires -- began diverting the streams that fed the river of the lakes to irrigate their fields. At first the main crops were feed for the cattle. Then came the endless wheat fields 2 that muckraking novelist Frank Norris wrote about in "The Octopus," then cotton, oranges, grapes, almonds, pistachios, tomatoes and lots of other good things.

Tulare Lake is gone (although it makes a partial reappearance during very wet years like this one), but what the California Department of Water Resources now dubs the Tulare Lake Hydrologic Region is the most productive agricultural region in the state -- making it, by extension, the most productive agricultural region in the U.S. and probably the world.

Not everybody calls it the Tulare Lake Hydrologic Region. It's generally known as the southern half of the San Joaquin Valley, the name that Spanish army officer Gabriel Moraga gave to what had previously been known as the Valle de los Tulares -- for the plants, called tules in English, 3  that abounded in its wetlands -- in 1806. But conflating what is also called the Tulare Lake basin or just the Tulare basin with the rest of the San Joaquin Valley risks obscuring what is so remarkable, and potentially endangered, about it.

Other California farming areas are more iconic: the vineyards of Napa and Sonoma counties, the berry and vegetable fields of the coastal valleys, the improbable, Colorado River-fueled desert abundance of Imperial County in the state's southeastern corner. But in terms of value of agricultural production, none comes anywhere close to the four-county Tulare Lake region and its 3 million acres of farmland. In fact, not many states come close. In 2015, the most recent year for which data is available, the Tulare basin's $22.5 billion in agricultural cash receipts accounted for 49 percent of California agricultural production and 6 percent of U.S. production:

Where the Tulare Lake Region* Fits In

Agricultural cash receipts, 2015

Sources: U.S. Department of Agriculture, county crop reports

*Tulare, Kern, Fresno and Kings counties

To slice it another way, the Tulare Lake basin's Tulare, Fresno and Kern counties 4  were the state's (and the country's 5 ) first, second and third counties for agricultural production in 2015. The fourth Tulare basin county, Kings County, was No. 9 in the state. The four counties of the northern San Joaquin Valley, the part actually drained by the San Joaquin River, came in places 5, 6, 7 and 10. Coastal Monterey and Ventura counties were 4 and 8.

Farming in the Tulare basin generally isn't bucolic, or picturesque -- although the citrus groves at the edge of the Sierra Nevada foothills can be lovely. It's large-scale, industrial agriculture. While there are thousands of family-owned-and-operated farms, ranches and dairies, the region's signature enterprises are giant ones such as the Boswell cotton empire and the almond, pistachio, citrus and pomegranate juggernaut that is the Wonderful Co. LLC, owned by the Resnicks of Beverly Hills. The Tulare basin has been the location of titanic management-labor battles -- Cesar Chavez's famous grape boycott grew out of a strike in Delano -- and of Merle Haggard plaints:

I can see mom and dad with shoulders low/Both of 'em pickin' on a double row/They do it for a livin' because they must/That's life like it is in the Tulare dust.

More than 2 million people now live in the region, most in the Fresno and Bakersfield metropolitan areas. Poverty is rampant, the air is the nation's most polluted, and the main artery, U.S. 99, is a potholed freeway choked with trucks. Still, it remains a spectacular place to grow crops and raise livestock:

What They Grow Around Tulare Lake

The region's billion-dollar agricultural products in 2015

Source: County crop reports

What makes the area such an agricultural dynamo? There's the hot, desert-like climate, with average annual precipitation ranging from 11.5 inches in Fresno in the north to 6.5 inches in Bakersfield in the south (10 inches is considered the cutoff for desert status). There's the flat landscape covered in rich soil left behind by the lake, the surrounding wetlands and hundreds of thousands of years of intermittent flooding. There's the ready access to customers, with two of the country's five biggest urban agglomerations each about a three-hour drive away. There's the long history of agricultural investment and innovation, driven by some of the smartest, best-informed farmers one could ever hope to meet.

Oh, yeah, and there's the water. California has lots of difficult water questions -- Can Southern California desert-dwellers be persuaded to stop watering their lawns? Can Californians in general be persuaded to drink treated sewage? Will desalination ever pay? Should Governor Jerry Brown be allowed to dig giant water tunnels under the delta where the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers meet before flowing into the San Francisco Bay? Does the endangered delta smelt have a future? -- but my impression is that the Tulare basin and its agricultural water needs pose the central one. 

Fishing in Tulare County, California

A fisherman fishes the low waters of Lake Success, a reservoir of the Tule River, in Tulare County, California.

Photographer: David McNew/Getty Images

I'm sure that's my impression partly because I used to live there -- my first job out of college was as the agriculture and business reporter for the Tulare Advance-Register -- but it's a view backed up by some big numbers. From 2001 through 2010, the most recent year for which full state water-budget data is available, California's farms, cities and industries used an average of 43.7 million acre-feet of applied water a year. Of that, 10.8 million acre-feet a year was used to irrigate the fields, orchards and vineyards of the Tulare basin. 6  "Applied water" means what it sounds like; the state also estimates consumptive water use, which subtracts out water that, say, flows into the neighbor's irrigation ditch or seeps into the ground and can thus be used again. That came to 31.7 million acre-feet for the state and 8.1 million by Tulare basin farmers over that same period. Either way, Tulare basin farmers accounted for about one-quarter of California water use. One. Quarter.

This does not mean they wasted it! Tulare basin agriculture accounted for a little under a third of statewide agricultural water use, yet, as we've already seen, the area is responsible for about half of state agricultural output. Farming requires lots of water but, compared to other California farmers, those in the Tulare basin use it quite efficiently. 7

Still, yes, it is a staggering amount of water. Here's how total consumptive water use in the Tulare basin (the ag total plus about 260,000 acre-feet in urban and industrial use) stacks up against equivalent figures for the other hydrologic regions in California's Central Valley and the South Coast (which includes the Los Angeles and San Diego metropolitan areas and Ventura County's farms), plus similar ones for a few other places known for dry weather and agricultural bounty. 8

Water Use Around California and the World

Annual water consumption, in acre-feet

Sources: California Department of Water Resources, national and state governments

Numbers for California regions are averages for 2001-2010, Arizona 2014, Australia 2014-2015, Israel 2013.

Australia uses more water than the Tulare Lake region. It also has 174 times the land area, 10 times the population, and almost twice the agricultural production. And the Tulare Lake basin has an Australia-like dry climate. So where does it get all that water?

It starts with the rivers and streams flowing into the basin. Some of the highest mountains in the continental U.S. can be found on the eastern edge of the Tulare Lake watershed, so those rivers and streams sometimes have quite a lot of snowmelt flowing down them. The four main ones, the Kings, Kaweah, Tule and Kern rivers, have since 1894 sent an average of almost 3 million acre-feet of water a year to the Tulare basin -- although there is a lot of year-to-year variation. 9

That's still far short of the 10.8 million acre-feet of water a year that the region's farmers put on their crops, though. Include urban use, and the region needs 11.6 million acre-feet (yes, we're back to applied water, and that's what I'll be using in the coming paragraphs because it makes the most sense to me). And so, since the early days, Tulare basin farmers have been supplementing the water from the sky and from the rivers with water from the ground. Given that much of the region had been under water for much of its existence, that wasn't hard to do at first. Artesian wells, in which water naturally flows to the surface once you've dug a hole into the ground, were common.

But water levels soon started dropping, and farmers had to start pumping. The use of electrical pumps for agriculture was pioneered in the Tulare Lake basin just before 1900. By the 1930s, California was home to 70 percent of the nation's agricultural water pumps, the water table was plummeting, and it became apparent to the region's farmers that this could not go on. In the less-than-charitable telling of the late environmental activist and historian Marc Reisner:

Having exhausted a hundred centuries' worth of groundwater in a generation and a half, they did what any pressure group usually does: run to the politicians they ordinarily despise and beg relief.

And relief they got, from state and federal officials (and taxpayers) and the much-wetter Sacramento River watershed to the north. First, in the early 1950s, came the federal Central Valley Project, which diverted water from the San Joaquin River down the east side of the Tulare basin in the Friant-Kern Canal and compensated farmers along the San Joaquin with water pumped from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta (and stored mainly behind Shasta Dam in far-northern California). Then, in the late 1960s, the Central Valley Project and the State Water Project (which stores much of its water behind Oroville Dam, which you may have heard about lately) began pumping water from the delta down the California Aqueduct along the west side of the Tulare basin. All told, the Central Valley Project and State Water Project added about 4 million acre-feet of water a year to the area's water supply.

The Tulare Lake region can sustainably pump about 4.8 million acre-feet of groundwater a year, retired National Park Service geologist/economist John T. Austin estimates in his book "Floods and Droughts in the Tulare Lake Basin." 10 That's a ballpark number that will vary depending how much water is imported into the region -- more imported water seeping into the ground means you can pump more groundwater without exhausting it. But it does give us something to add to those two sources of surface water supply: 4.8 plus 4 plus 3 is 11.8 million acre-feet of water. Average water demand, remember, is 11.6 million acre-feet. The Tulare basin was set!

Except that it wasn't, quite. California's long love affair with dams and canals, what some call the hydraulic era, came to an end in the 1970s. Giant, expensive new water projects became political poison. State voters, who had only narrowly approved the bonds to pay for the State Water Project in 1960, in 1982 resoundingly rejected the Peripheral Canal, which would have allowed the Central Valley Project and State Water Project to bypass the delta, improving the quality and reliability of water imports. Meanwhile, public attitudes about the environment were changing, and laws, regulations and court rulings aimed at protecting wildlife and water quality began to weigh on north-south water flows.

Some wild claims have been made about just how big an impact these environmental measures have had. In an editorial earlier this month, for example, the Wall Street Journal claimed that as a result of "regulations intended to protect smelt and salmon ... some seven million acre-feet of water that was once available for Central Valley farmers and Southern California is flushed into San Francisco Bay each year." 11 In a report last month, the Public Policy Institute of California did not venture to assign a number to the impact of environmental regulations on water imports, but did caution that estimates of a 2 million acre-feet-per-year reduction in delta imports seemed to involve counting the same water over and over. 12

The PPIC -- a nonpartisan think tank co-founded and funded in the 1990s by tech industry legend William R. Hewlett 13 -- was willing to put a number on another factor holding down Tulare basin water imports. After passing through the valley, the State Water Project's California Aqueduct continues over the Tehachapi Mountains into Southern California. In the early days, Southern California cities did not take all the project water they were entitled to, instead selling it at a discount to Tulare basin farmers. As their populations grew and Arizona successfully claimed some Colorado River water that Southern California had been using, that changed. The PPIC estimates that almost 500,000 acre-feet of water a year that had been staying in the Tulare basin are now pumped over the mountains to the south instead.

Overall, the Tulare basin's water imports from the Central Valley Project and State Water Project averaged 3 million acre-feet a year from 2001 through 2010, down about a million acre-feet a year from the 1970s and 1980s. Dry weather may explain some of the decrease: Precipitation in the Central Valley was about 10 percent below normal during that stretch. But for the sake of simplicity, let's ignore that, leaving a supply drop of 500,000 acre-feet a year beyond what can be explained by the increasing thirstiness of Southern California.

That seems like a reasonable starting estimate of the impact of environmental regulations on Tulare basin water imports. And since the Tulare basin accounts for more than half the water delivered by the Central Valley's two big projects, it would seem to imply that the overall impact of environmental protections on delta imports adds up to less than 1 million acre-feet a year -- which is a lot less than 7 million.

Still, it's also a lot more than nothing. The reductions in imports, coupled with a decline in local river flows to 2.1 million acre-feet a year from 2001 through 2010, were enough to put the Tulare Lake basin back in a condition of substantial groundwater overdraft. Surface water supplies and sustainable groundwater extraction added up to 9.9 million acre-feet -- 1.7 million acre-feet short of what the region was actually using.

And that was before the latest drought hit. The water year 2011 (California water years begin in October of the previous year, because that's when the rainy season begins) was quite wet in the Tulare basin; 2012 was somewhat drier than normal; 2013 was much drier than normal; and 2014 and 2015 were among the driest years ever. (Well, among the driest since 1894: One major theme of Austin's book is that California has experienced droughts and floods in past centuries that put to shame anything that has happened since the 1860s.)

A fallow field in Tulare, California.

A fallow field in Tulare, California.

Photographer: Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

In 2015, flows in the Tulare basin's rivers totaled just 307,000 acre-feet, and imports added up to a similarly small number. Water use went down by about a million acre-feet as farmers fallowed fields, but that still left a staggering amount to be made up by groundwater pumping. Researchers from the PPIC and the University of California at Davis's Center for Watershed Sciences estimate that the groundwater overdraft for the entire San Joaquin Valley was 4 million acre-feet in 2013, 5.4 million in 2014 and a mind-boggling 7 million in 2015. The Tulare basin probably accounted for at least two-thirds of that. The water table plummeted, and so did the land itself, with the old Tulare Lake bed suffering some of the worst subsidence. Some rural communities that couldn't afford pumps that went as deep as the farmers' pumps ran out of water, and it seemed like the region might be headed for some sort of economic apocalypse.

Then, as has so often happened over the past century-plus, the rains and snow came along just in time. Last winter was still pretty dry in the Tulare basin, but wetter than normal in much of Northern California. This year has been a soaker all around. The snowpack in the southern Sierra Nevada mountains, which feeds the basin's rivers, is currently at 183 percent of normal. The Oroville Dam's difficulties mean that State Water Project customers may not get all the water they want, but the crisis is over. The Tulare basin's chronic issues with taking more water out of the ground than gets put back are not over, though. In fact, they may be worse than ever, since land subsidence has been robbing the region of its underground water-storage capability.

Oroville Dam

The damaged spillway at Oroville Dam.

Photographer: Dale Kolke/California Department of Water Resources

What is to be done? The standard answer from the region's politicians is that rolling back environmental regulations is the ticket. With Bakersfield's Kevin McCarthy currently the House majority leader and Tulare's Devin Nunes a senior member of the Ways and Means Committee, a rollback may well be in the offing. But if my accounting above is anywhere close to correct, the impact on the Tulare basin's water supply would be far from transformative. Actually building new dams and other infrastructure to bring more water from Northern California southward could have a bigger impact, but the odds of that seem awfully small. Just mustering the money and political will to keep the current system functioning as dams and canals age and reservoirs silt up will be a challenge.

The delta tunnels project, a scaled-down reimagining of the Peripheral Canal billed as a way to make the state's water supply more secure -- but not any bigger -- has been bogged down for years in environmental reviews and political debate. The tunnels may still be built because Southern California's water authorities (and the governor) really want them, but the diminishing role of agriculture in the state's economy is going to make it ever harder for Tulare basin farmers to get what they really want. Their region may be the state's, and the nation's, agricultural powerhouse, but it accounted for less than 4 percent of California's gross domestic product in 2015.

Another problem for the Tulare basin is that it has such a tenuous grasp on so much of its water. Water rights in California are a mix of riparian (if you live alongside a stream you have a right to take water from it) and appropriative (if you divert water not already claimed by others and put it to beneficial use, you have a right to keep doing so). The Tulare basin's Central Valley Project and State Water Project imports definitely aren't riparian, and they aren't even quite appropriative -- just government-granted "allocations" subject to curtailment and change. When water becomes scarcer, whether because of drought or population growth in California's cities or new environmental restrictions, Tulare basin farmers are the first to be cut off, even though they could arguably wring more economic value out of the stuff than, say, rice farmers in the Sacramento Valley.

For an outside observer, the seemingly obvious solution to the groundwater-overdraft problem is to take a few hundred thousand acres of the area's agricultural land, preferably the lowest-quality land, out of production. The Tulare Lake basin could still be the nation's leading agricultural region, just not with quite as big a lead as it has now. This is in fact an idea that environmental groups and state and federal officials have been pushing for decades. It tends to rub people in the region the wrong way: In a 2015 op-ed, Nunes warned of "a long-term campaign waged by radical environmentalists" to "depopulate" parts of the San Joaquin Valley.

Government attempts to steer farmer behavior in this direction can also have unintended consequences. The Central Valley Project Improvement Act, approved by Congress in 1992, raised the price of water with the idea that, among other things, it would cause Tulare basin farmers to stop planting thirsty, relatively low-value crops such as cotton. It worked! Cotton used to be the area's No. 1 crop; now it's not even in the top 10. But it was supplanted mainly by almonds, which use more water per acre than cotton and can't skip a year when water supplies are low. Almonds are definitely a higher-value crop, which is why farmers chose to plant them, but they've made water demand less flexible. Entirely sensible individual economic decisions by farmers have collectively added up to an unsustainable path.

Almond trees

Almond trees in Fresno County, California.

Photographer: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg

Appropriately enough, then, the Tulare basin and other parts of California grappling with groundwater overdraft are about to embark on a grand experiment in collective decision-making mandated by new groundwater laws approved by the state legislature and signed by the governor in 2014. Local groundwater sustainability agencies -- I count at least 20 established or proposed in the Tulare basin so far -- are supposed to come up with plans to achieve groundwater balance by 2040, and then start making it happen. That's right: Farmers are supposed to figure out how to make other farmers stop pumping so much water. Good luck with that, guys!

The answer will clearly have something to do with making water, including groundwater, much more of a market commodity -- as has been done in Australia. But this is another thing that state and federal officials have been pushing for years in the Tulare basin and in California in general, with only limited success. The farmers of Fresno, Kern, Kings and Tulare counties tend to think that what you're supposed to do with water is use it to grow things -- not sell it to the cities, not let it flow out to the San Francisco Bay, and definitely not let it gather in the Tulare basin lowlands to create the largest lake west of the Mississippi. I wish they saw things a bit differently, but I can kind of understand why they don't.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

  1. Possible, but not easy. According to John T. Austin, there have been just five documented boat voyages between the San Francisco Bay and Tulare Lake, the first in a whaleboat that was stolen in the bay in 1853 and brought upstream to a ranch near what is now Bakersfield, and the last by two guys with kayaks who made their way from Bakersfield to San Francisco -- with lots of portages in between -- in 1983.

  2. Fun fact: Wheat acreage in California peaked in 1888, at 3 million acres. At the time the state was the country's No. 2 wheat producer.

  3. The scientific name is Schoenoplectus acutus.

  4. A small part of Fresno County is in the San Joaquin River watershed, and a large part of Kern County is in the Mojave Desert, but I don't think those skew the agricultural-production totals much.

  5. In the most recent U.S. Census of Agriculture, in 2012, Colorado's Weld County was the only non-California county to break the top 10. It came in 9th.

  6. Yes, "acre-feet." I'll repeat what I wrote in an earlier column: It's the standard measure for really big amounts of water in California. One acre-foot is 325,581 gallons, 1.2 million liters, 1,233 cubic meters -- enough water for a year for about 10 San Francisco Bay Areans and seven Southern Californians.

  7. They've been big adopters of drip irrigation, for example.

  8. Links to sources: Arizona, Australia, Israel. There may be differences between how water use is measured in these places and how it's done in California. In fact, the PPIC has a whole report exploring some of them. But I think the numbers are at least roughly comparable.

  9. In 1983, the wettest year since record-keeping began in 1894, the rivers' flow totaled 8.7 million acre-feet. In 2015, it was just 307,000 acre-feet.

  10. This remarkable book, which recounts every major Tulare Lake basin flood and drought since 212 A.D., is also the source for much of the historical detail in the opening paragraphs of this piece.

  11. The only way I can come anywhere near that total is by including the minimum river flows needed to keep the delta (and with it the Central Valley Project and State Water Project) from being overwhelmed with saltwater from the San Francisco Bay.

  12. That is, assuming that regulatory restrictions on flows are all additive, when many in fact overlap.

  13. The other co-founders were former University of California Chancellor Roger W. Heyns and former Ford Motor Co. President and Stanford Business School Dean Arjay Miller. But it was HP Inc. co-founder Hewlett who put up the money.

To contact the author of this story:
Justin Fox at

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Brooke Sample at

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