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Retired farmer warns of huge water problem

Wendy Alexander/Madera Tribune File Photo

Tom Willey of T&D Willey Farms Inc. holds up organic carrots grown on his property in 2015. Willey spoke to The Madera Tribune recently about the state’s water issues.


For many years. retired farmer Tom Willey of T&D Willey Organic Farms, pumped water onto his 75 acres of farmland in Madera County.

During his 20 years of farming, Willey didn’t think of much other than growing his crops and living off the land.

However, now he realized he was part of the problem and, if something isn’t done, the entire Central Valley could be in for a rude awakening when it comes to water issues.

“A couple of weeks ago, I ran into my friend, Matt Angell, who owns Madera Pumps,” Willey said. “He basically goes around and services a bunch of agriculture wells. He has been running cameras down people’s wells at a rate of about three a day. People have been calling him frantically of what is going on with their pump with no water or water quality bad. He was dropping his camera down wells and has seen a precipitous drop in the water table. In the last six or eight months, the table has dropped about 50 feet. There’s a lot of distress going on. The white area was almost all rangeland or cattle land or wheat. That was what that ground was for. When the nut craze came in and nut irrigation and micro sprinklers came in to irrigate undulating land, now we have a huge amount of acreage, 100,000 acres, are being farmed where they don’t have access to canal water. They are depleting their well and other people’s wells across the whole district. It’s a race to the bottom. If we don’t wake up as a community and who’s the Jonah on the boat, the whole boat could go down. We don’t have a highly diversified economy here. It’s a very agriculturally dependent economy. If all agriculture goes down, all of Madera goes down with it. If we are just honest and determine that we can’t have people farming on just pumped well water outside of the district. Something has to go and it has to be the agriculture in the white area that doesn’t ever have access to canal water. The quicker we wake up to that and do something about it, the better chance we will have of surviving as a community and having some viable agriculture in the foreseeable future.”

Willey moved to Madera from Fresno in 1995 after farming for about 15 years.

“When we first moved to Madera, one of the main things I noticed was we didn’t have any recharge basins. They are all over in the Fresno Irrigation District,” he said.

Willey noticed there are two major river systems feeding the Central Valley — the Kings River and the San Joaquin River.

“The two systems are very different, The Kings River is under local control,” he said. “The San Joaquin River is under control by the federal government — Bureau of Reclamation. We bought a 75-acre farm on Ave. 14 and Road 20 in beautiful downtown Bonita. We started growing all sorts of vegetables. We found out that even though we were smack dab in the middle of the Madera Irrigation District, we couldn’t access the canal water that went through our farm. That’s because of a whole lot of bureaucratic regulations. So, we pumped our well. We farmed with well water.”

When Willey began farming, the depth to groundwater was about 120 feet. When he sold the farm 20 years later, the depth was 200 feet. At that time, Willey was ready to retire and that 80 feet of groundwater lost was a big reason to sell the farm.

“When we bought the property, we were delighted we bought a farm,” he said. “It took us 15 years just to save enough for a down payment. We, and about 50 other people, farmed our tails off. We were able to pay that thing off in 10 years. We owned it free and clear. We lined up my three children and asked if they wanted to farm and they didn’t want to. We said we would never sell the property. If we retired, we would sit there and watch the weeds grow.

“This was in 2015 and the craze was going on and people were going crazy buying almond and pistachio orchards and land to grow them on with abandon. They were paying huge amounts of money for the acreage they could plant on. I noticed that. We were in the depths of the last bitter drought that lasted from 2012-2016. In 2014, the state, for the first time, and we were the last state in the Western United States, decided to put limits on the extraction of groundwater from the aquifers. Everyone was suffering. We were in the middle of a drought and there was no canal water. I learned from a couple of people who said that in five years, you would have enough to farm two-thirds of your acreage. If you were in the (white) area, defined by any irrigated land outside of an irrigation district, which means all they can do is pump water. If people are out there, they would be lucky to farm one-third of their acreage. That’s coming through now.”

So, Willey and his wife decided to sell the farm and his 75 acres.

“I was looking at my crystal ball. Jackrabbits and sage brushes and my children didn’t want to farm the land. If we were going to sell it, now’s the time to sell it,” he said. “We sold the land. We made investments for our retirements. We passed the business to folks and they didn’t manage it well. We’re not the only people that have been selling properties with the knowledge that the water is diminishing vastly. The climate had changed since 1985 and our precipitation has become very erratic —very wet years and super dry years — and we’re in a super dry year. We’ve had a couple of weeks of water in the canals. Other than that, people are pumping water.”

And, that brings the problem to the table. More and more people are moving into the land where there are no pumps or canals so the farmers are pumping the ground water. And, now the ground water is getting less and less so the farmers can’t fully irrigate their crops.

“I have a lot of farming friends in both situations,” Willey said. “I have friends in Madera Irrigation District and other districts. I also have friends that farm in the white area that don’t have canal water and pump. I’m reluctant to stick my neck out there to say that agriculture has to go. These guys have an idea it wasn’t the best place to bet on indefinite decades of farming out there. The chickens have come home to roost and we have to deal with that as a community. I really don’t think there’s a broad appreciation of what is going on in regards to the water. The community needs to be informed, both the urban community and agriculture community.”

Unfortunately, most of the solutions are decades-long solution, like building a dam.

“Most of the viable dams have been built and most aren’t filled up because the rainfall was so sparse last year,” Willey said. “There are talks about building dams and opposition about the dams. But, if the dam is approved, it will take 20-30 years to build. We don’t have 20-30 years to play around. What we have is have huge wet years and huge dry years. When we have these wet years, there’s not enough dams to put enough water. What we have to do is do more groundwater recharge. You have to spread the water out and sink it into the ground. There are some innovative farmers that have demonstrated how that is done. We have to do that on a huge scale. Madera is beginning to play with that, but we haven’t developed it well enough. If we have a wet year, we should be spreading all the water and getting it into the aquifers. I suspect we’re not ready for it. We might get some water into it. A lot of it is going out to the ocean. We either have not enough water or too much water.”

In addition to the needs of the farmers, environmentalists have also had their say in how water is dispersed, which is quite different than years ago.

“There’s been a lot of disagreement about how to manager our water,” Willey said. “The farmer’s interests were on the top of the game 70 years ago. We stole it fair and square and had all the water to use for a long time. There were 40-year contracts for the water. In those contracts, the need to maintain native fisheries were ignored. We all were hunky dory for 40 years. The environmental movement became a reality during those 40 years and were ready when the contracts expired. The fisheries were decimated and have to be maintained. That’s been a big issue over the last 30 years of how to maintain environmental stability and manage agriculture.”

Willey says that in order to keep up with the water supply, a lot of acreage of farmland needs to be eliminated.

“It’s pretty well recognized by everyone that we over-developed agriculture for the amount of resources we have to serve it,” he said. “It’s understood in the San Joaquin Valley, we’re going to have to eliminate 500,000 to 1,000,000 acres of our 6,000,000 acres in order to get things in balance.”

However, even if the groundwater gets recharged, if there is a great rain year, if water gets sent to the Central Valley, dispersing the water will be a challenge because the water systems, itself, needs an upgrade.

“Both the California aqueduct on the west side and the Friant/Kern Canal on the east side have dips in them. The canals have sunk a few feet in certain places where groundwater have been pumped out. If you run water down a canal and it dips, the water doesn’t go down the canal, it goes outside. The Kern Canal, below Tulare County, has lost 60 percent of its capacity. Even if we had the water, we can’t push it down there. It’s going to go all over the place. It’s going to cost $1 billion to fix that canal. We have big problems. We can’t fully utilize the infrastructure we have. We have pumped and pumped so much, the ground sank and the canals have humps and swells in them and they don’t work right.”

Willey knows there is no short term answer and he also says there is no one to blame. It’s just the way it is and the community needs to be aware about how dire the water situation is.

“We’re not calling anybody the black hat.” he said. “We’re just looking at the facts. I had my 75 acres in the Madera Irrigation District. I did my share. I pumped a lot of water to grow those vegetables. I think I did it fairly responsibly. Even though we had canal water running below us, we didn’t have the legal right to take it. It wasn’t the best thing for sustainability. That’s the difference in doing business with the Bureau of Reclamation versus the Army Corps of Engineers.”

“We need some high speed water projects to save what is the most productive unique real estate on the planet with the Central Valley,” Willey said.


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