The San Joaquin Valley is a Water Victim

California drought pits farmers vs. cities. But neither is the biggest water victim.

The drought that has parched California’s West has long been seen as a test of water rights. But that was always overstated. Today, its consequences are felt most acutely in the San Joaquin Valley where farmers have been asked to give up their most valuable resources: the water they use for farming.

Like so many of the world’s water rights disputes, the San Joaquin Valley drought is a case of good people trying to bad people. Farmers are being asked to share with their biggest customers the water they take from the ground to grow crops, and cities are being asked to share with their biggest customers the water that they use to run their infrastructure. But even as the stakes in the West grow higher than ever, neither is the biggest water victim.

The San Joaquin Valley is the largest agricultural area in the state. To feed the world, California grows four times more than it uses–and consumes two-thirds less, according to the state. It has been a model of water conservation, drawing on groundwater more than the national average and using rain to irrigate.

California is now a net water consumer; that is, it has taken more water than it has used for more than a decade. And it’s not getting it back anytime soon.

The San Joaquin Valley has lost all-time production since the 1960s; that’s because of the drought. And it looks like the national average.

Farmers’ production of irrigated corn and wheat has dropped by 60 percent in the valley in two years, according to a National Drought Monitor report last month. (That’s the most in any of the eight major irrigation basins in the country.)

Water for the valley is now so scarce that agriculture companies are turning to “rainwater harvesting”–wool and cotton that’s grown in the area that washes back into the San Joaquin. This has long been a part of the valley’s water supply, but for the first time it’s been a solution to its water-shortage problems.

The trouble is, it’s expensive, and

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