Opinion: Is anyone listening?
One courageous voice in our community has been sounding the alarm that our precious aquifer, lifeblood of our economy, households, and public facilities, is in imminent collapse. For the better part of this year, Matt Angell, managing partner of Madera Pumps Inc., has been reeling his video camera down failing wells across the county, stunned by the unprecedented conditions he is witnessing. Plunging water levels, well casings crushed and split like beer cans, and good wells reduced to a trickle of their recent selves, have Matt sounding the cry that our community must respond in equal measure to the challenge before us. We are not. Is anyone listening?
Most recently, Matt’s and Madera County’s unfolding story, “The Well Fixer’s Warning,” was told by author Mark Arax in The Atlantic Monthly (August 17, 2021). In it Arax quotes Angell: “I’ve been putting my camera down three wells a day,” he said. “I used to use the word unprecedented to describe what we’re doing to the land. Now I use the word biblical. I could keep my mouth shut and make a lot of money fixing wells between now and the time it all goes to hell. But I wouldn’t be able to look my son, who’s running our farm, in the eye.” In addition, The Fresno Bee dug deep into Madera County’s distress in a front-page article, “Madera County overwhelmed by drought, dry water wells” (August 29, 2021). The only place you never read of Madera’s water woes is in The Madera Tribune.
Our ‘Madera Subbasin,’ identified by the Department of Water Resources (DWR) as “Critically Overdrafted,” has been winding its way through a complex bureaucratic process since 2014’s passage of a landmark Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA), birthed by the last bitter drought. The formation of seven local agencies, countless public meetings, and expensive hydrologic investigations resulted in Groundwater Sustainability Plans (GSP), presented to DWR for approval in January 2020. While waiting for DWR to wade through thousands of pages submitted, Madera is supposed to be moving forward with its implementation, which is designed to stabilize our imperiled aquifer by the year 2040. The problem is, we don’t have that kind of time, if we are to believe well fixer Matt Angell.
A measly 2 percent reduction in pumping imposed on irrigated land outside of Madera County’s organized irrigation districts, farms with no access to surface water from Friant Reservoir or water impounded behind smaller dams on local streams, is wholly inadequate. Some 100,000 acres farmed solely by extracting groundwater, much of it developed over just the last decade, must be rapidly eliminated by at least 2/3 if we are to save any irrigated agriculture in Madera County over the long run. Only lands that have access to both surface water supplies, using groundwater as a supplement, have any chance of being sustained indefinitely, given the intensity and frequency of drought in this era of climate change.
A number of Madera’s generational family farmers, who read the writing on the wall, have already sold off their lands. If we are not to see our floundering agriculture gobbled up by vulture hedge funds, who have little interest in the long-term health of our community, we must act with resolve, and fast.
— Tom Willey,
T&D Willey Farms