With reduced stream flows, California farmers have turned increasingly over the past few decades to groundwater to irrigate their crops during the growing season, withdrawing unimaginable quantities of water to sustain water-thirsty monocrops like pasture, alfalfa, almonds, and fruit. Several wells located just barely on the California side of the California-Oregon border pump water through pipes a meter in diameter, sucking out an astonishing amount of groundwater. Although groundwater had been chronically overdrawn in California due to a lack of regulation, withdrawals have doubled recently, leaving domestic and municipal wells high and dry. Indeed so much water has been withdrawn that their aquifers are collapsing and the land subsides a dozen feet or more.
California has begun to plan how to reduce groundwater withdrawals to a sustainable level – but as I have noted elsewhere – this regulation is far too little too late. Shortsighted choices have permanently altered the ability of California to be the fruit and vegetable basket of the United States. We will never again have the supplies of surface water and groundwater we enjoyed in the 20th century. As California groundwater is exhausted, its huge and rich agricultural valleys may no longer be able to provide cheap fruits and vegetables for the rest of the United States. We may see farmers and farmworkers migrating north in search of land with water. We will see a vast array of dislocations born from the greedy abuse of groundwater during the past few decades. Life will never be the same.
Even for those outside of California, these changes will require some adjustments that seem difficult. We may no longer be able to find fresh fruits and vegetables in every season. We may increase our reliance on local farms. We may need to invest our time in growing our own food in family or neighborhood plots. We may need to share our produce with neighbors who lack the land or capacity to grow their own.
But all change is not necessarily bad. We may end up trading modern isolation, alienation, and ennui for a different way of being. We may deepen our connection to the land. Our sense of time may dilate and become more cyclical. We may develop a deeper sense of family, neighborhood, and community. We may find that we enjoy the time spent growing life’s necessities. We may even learn to share those necessities with others. With God’s grace, we may find ways to fashion our lives so that it becomes a tad easier to be kind, do justice, and walk a bit more humbly with our God.