Private trade in water leaves small farmers in California’s San Joaquin Valley at risk

The Blakeley Canal feeds into a Dudley Ridge Water District lift station in Kings County, California. Kings County farmers worry that local groundwater is leaving their region through this canal.

SJV Water Editor and CEO Lois Henry had heard from farmers in Kings County in California’s San Joaquin Valley that water was being moved in large amounts from the heavily farmed region, possibly for sales outside the county. What she found was that water is, in fact, leaving the county, mostly under legal transfers by the region’s two largest farming companies. But exactly how much, where it’s ending up and whether it’s being sold or used on crops is impossible to ascertain because of California’s opaque water tracking system. This water exodus has a devastating effect on farmers, many of whom have been in the industry for generations.

In conjunction with the Center for Collaborative Investigative Journalism, and with a grant from the Fund, Henry spent three months picking through dozens of transfer records from the Department of Water Resources, county water agencies, and water districts. She quantified how much state water is leaving Kings County and determined that most of it is going to farms in adjacent Kern County. But the documents only showed a small piece of the puzzle. They don’t include river or groundwater or how landowners may be selling water within and between irrigation districts. After the story was published, the Department of Water Resources said it will change its water transfer protocols to make them more transparent.