As Groundwater Law Plows Forward, Small Farmers Seek More Engagement

Oct 15, 2019

Dennis Hutson’s rows of alfalfa, melons, okra and black-eyed peas are an oasis of green in the dry terrain of Allensworth, an unincorporated community in rural Tulare County. Hutson, currently cultivating on 60 acres, has a vision for many more fields bustling with jobs. “This community will forever be impoverished and viewed by the county as a hamlet,” he says, “unless something happens that can create an economic base. That's what I'm trying to do.”

While he scours his field for slender pods of ripe okra, three workers, community members he calls “helpers,” mind the irrigation station: 500-gallon water tanks and gurgling ponds at the head of each row, all fed by a 720-foot-deep groundwater well.

Just like for any grower, managing water is a daily task for Hutson and his helpers. That’s why he’s concerned about what could happen under the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, the state’s overhaul of groundwater regulations. Among other goals, the law sets out to eliminate the estimated 1.8 million acre-feet in annual deficit the state racks up each year by pumping more water out of underground aquifers than it can replenish.

After retiring from a career as a Chaplin with the U.S. Air Force, Hutson purchased his land in Allensworth in 2007. He hopes he can help create an economic engine in the community through agriculture.
Credit Kerry Klein / Valley Public Radio

Hutson worries small farmers may not have the resources to adapt to the potentially strict water allocations and cutbacks that might be coming. Their livelihoods and identities may be at stake. “You grow things a certain way, and then all of a sudden you don't have access to as much water as you would like in order to grow what you grow,” he says, “and now you’re kind of out of sorts.”

The Public Policy Institute of California has warned that in even in the best of circumstances, half a million acres of ag land in the Valley could be fallowed as SGMA rolls out. In the race for which land goes first—and who gets a voice in that decision—Hutson is wary of being pitted against bigger ag. “People will be fighting over water,” he says. “We may not be physically fighting, but we're fighting over water. And it's going to get worse.”

Chong Ge Xiong shares Hutson’s concerns. A Hmong farmer and former refugee on 40 acres in West Fresno, he supplies farmers’ markets and Asian grocery stores with bok choy, Daikon radish, sugar snap peas and other specialty crops. “As small farmers, we can’t really say what we grow,” he says through an interpreter. “We grow kind of everything.”

One of nearly 2600 Asian producers in the San Joaquin Valley, Hmong farmer Chong Ge Xiong grows 40 acres' worth of bok choy, Daikon radish, sticky rice and other specialty crops.
Credit Kerry Klein / Valley Public Radio

But this land lined with green leafy vegetables and tall stalks of sticky rice doesn’t actually belong to Xiong. It’s a lease. On one of the plots he owns, a well ran dry three years ago and he hasn’t been able to afford a new one. Today, Xiong uses those 20 dusty acres as a parking lot for his delivery vehicles. Leasing is a temporary solution, Xiong says, and he worries about more water setbacks. Unlike bigger outfits, he doesn’t have a team of accountants or lawyers to keep on top of finances and the state’s ever-changing water policies. “In one sense, you are in a different class in terms of agricultural practice,” he says.

SGMA is supposed to be creating groundwater solutions that work for everyone. But Xiong, Hutson and many others worry small farmers in particular aren’t being engaged in the decision-making process. “Often times it is the big farmers who has their representation and their voices heard,” says Dao Lor of the Fresno-based non-profit Asian Business Institute and Resource Center, which represents business owners like Xiong. “And there’s a saying: If you’re not on the table, you’re probably on the menu.”

Standing on leased land, Xiong points toward the 20 acres of land he had to fallow after his groundwater well ran dry and he couldn't afford to drill a new one. He worries he couldn't survive more water-related setbacks.
Credit Kerry Klein / Valley Public Radio

Fears about SGMA leadership are not entirely unfounded. The 300-odd local agencies writing up groundwater plans, called groundwater sustainability agencies, or GSAs, appoint boards of directors, and a scientific article currently under review by researchers at the UC Davis Center for Environmental Policy and Behavior paints a stark picture of who sits on those boards: “At a very high level, we’ve basically seen that there is no representation of small farmers on most of these boards,” says Jessica Rudnick, one of the study’s coauthors.

Some boards do reserve seats specifically for agricultural interests. In some cases, Rudnick says, “that ag representative’s seat might be fairly widely encompassing all different types of agriculture in the region, and so some of those actors have the potential to represent small farmer needs.” Those seats are often reserved for regional irrigation districts, however, which tend to serve larger ag interests. Otherwise, GSA board members most commonly represent cities and counties.

Yet small farmers represent more than 80 percent of California’s agricultural producers, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which defines them as producers bringing in less than $250,000 in annual income. Many of those growers are minorities. In the San Joaquin Valley, one-sixth of producers are Hispanic, and nearly one in 10 are Asian. “In the old country, ag is what we’re known for,” says Blong Xiong, executive director of the Asian Business Institute and Resource Center and the first Hmong American to serve on the Fresno City Council. Not related to Chong Ge Xiong, he worries that without more representation, small farmers could be the first to be hit by water cutbacks. “For our community, ag is survival,” he says.

Cristel Tufenkjian of the Kings River Water Quality Coalition shared SGMA basics at a UC Cooperative Extension meeting for small farmers in Fresno on September 17, 2019.
Credit Kerry Klein / Valley Public Radio

Strategies for how to reduce groundwater reliance will vary with each GSA, but could include water allocations by acreage or income level, or water markets in which those with the means could buy out water from others. Small farmer advocates rumor that Madera County GSAs are considering water markets that would favor almonds and other cash crops over row crops, which tend to be grown in smaller operations. A representative of those GSAs could not recall that proposal specifically, though she did say it was possible board members were considering it.

Ruth Dahlquist-Willard argues that more small farmers need to be taking part in such decisions, though as a small farms advisor with the University of California Cooperative Extension, she acknowledges those growers can be harder to reach. They tend to have fewer resources than bigger outfits to leave the fields and go to meetings. Many don’t speak English, and those who lease land from far-off owners may not see policy mailings. “There’s not the social network either, what we might call social capital, where you have other chances to hang out with the people that are making the decisions,” she says. Even five years after SGMA was passed, many small farmers have still never heard of the law.

But that’s no reason not to engage, Dahlquist-Willard argues. With their Groundwater Sustainability Plans due to the state at the end of January, most GSAs in the Valley have drafted their plans and posted them to the web for public comment. “Right now is the time when farmers and anyone else who is interested can actually provide input on the plans that are going to be implemented next year,” she says.

In September, Dahlquist-Willard organized a meeting for small farmers and GSA representatives to come together in Fresno. Dennis Hutson attended; Chong Ge Xiong came out to a similar meeting for Asian business owners. “The goal was to connect the farmers with people who are putting the plans together that are going to affect how groundwater is going to be managed in the San Joaquin Valley,” she says.

Gary Serrato runs the North Kings Groundwater Sustainability Agency (GSA), one of nearly 300 GSAs formed around the state as part of SGMA. He says which growers are at risk can depend on how big they are, which GSA they belong to and how much surface water they have access to.
Credit Kerry Klein / Valley Public Radio

Around 100 people showed up, including Gary Serrato, former executive officer of the North Kings GSA and former executive director of the Fresno Irrigation District. Among GSAs statewide, he agrees representation can be a problem. “Are there larger farmers who’re on boards as opposed to the smaller farmer? I’d say that’d probably be a fair assessment,” he says. In his Fresno County GSA, he points out that many board members are small farmers on the side, though it’s not anyone’s main job.

As for whether small farmers have more to fear from SGMA than do larger interests, Serrato says it depends on which GSA they belong to, and how much surface water can be pulled in to augment dwindling access to groundwater. For instance, the Valley’s East Side has more access to surface water than the West Side; there, bigger farmers may have an edge. “They’re the ones who’ll be able to afford to go out and buy surface water at a higher cost and bring it in,” Serrato says. “Whereas with the smaller farmers, especially crop growers, they’re better off to be on the East Side because they’re not going to be able to afford to bring that water supply in.”

Serrato says his GSA is doing its best to engage smaller farmers, and he does have a reputation for making an effort. He has reached out to advocacy groups representing small and minority farmers, and has sent thousands of mailings to landowners.

But his is just one GSA. Nearly three hundred others are grappling with the same challenges, many with less success.

Update January 2020: Since this story has been published, Madera County GSAs have received a grant from the Bureau of Reclamation to engage with disadvantaged communities and other stakeholders to develop equitable water markets.