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California Water and Agriculture

Farmer Perspectives on Water Access and Governance

Catherine Van Dyke

February 2024, English

This paper examines farmer perspectives on water access and governance in California, with a focus on groundwater in the San Joaquin Valley and surface water from the Colorado River in the Coachella Valley. While groundwater and surface water are managed as entirely separate resources, groundwater flows are directly linked to surface water’s hydrologic cycles. An examination of both water resources allows for exploration of separate yet interconnected water resources in California and how farmers are impacted by them. Rather than a comparative study, these two very different regions are chosen to draw out what is common between both, thus resulting in a better representation of California’s agricultural water usage. To support the contemporary examination of groundwater and the Colorado River, a brief history of each water resource and its governance is summarized.

Using GIS spatial data analysis, this paper finds that from 2015 to 2021, in both study regions agriculture shifted toward higher value crops, which are also more water intensive. These high value crops are predominantly nut and citrus trees. This implies that with less water available, farmers focus on getting more value per drop of water used. Semi-structured farmer interviews in the study areas support this finding and indicate that the factors influencing this crop transition primarily include labor availability and cost, debt load, and business regulations, rather than water. All farmers interviewed make efforts to conserve their water usage and are experiencing a changing climate as a challenge to their annual production, but their interpretations of this experience vary greatly. Farmers reported a sense of security in their own access to water, low capacity for collaboration with other farmers on water resources, and a sense of defensiveness around the importance of agriculture and its water usage. Finally, awareness of water governance varies greatly with the scale of farm production, with larger farm businesses emerging as the most aware and engaged with water governance decisions.

This paper argues that water policy and discussions of water use in agriculture need to be embedded in the economic reality of farmers. Water cannot be treated as a standalone variable, since it functions as a factor that interacts with the multifaceted needs of farmers. When water is viewed as an interlocking variable that both impacts and is impacted by labor, farm debt, and regulations, a more expansive understanding of water solutions can be explored. With this view of agriculture, alternative water reduction strategies can look like debt relief for farmers, supporting affordable land access, or establishing secure market channels for more drought resilient crops.


Environmental Management, Farm Land, Land Use, Urban Sprawl, Water, Water Planning