Food Lifestyle Sustainability

Eat Your View: A Giant Sucking Sound

Sprinkler systems water rows of lettuce crops on farmland in the Salinas Valley, California

By Robert Turner

As a farmer and food politics commentator, I have a fair understanding of food production in the US. The two biggest problems that we face in agriculture today, as I see it now, are an over-dependence on drought-stricken California for the bulk of our vegetables and a system of corn-fed meat production that is rapidly depleting our soils in the Midwest and causing environmental damage (related to over-tilling and heavy chemical applications).

While we’re all too familiar with the terrible fires in California that captured news headlines for months this past fall, all were related to ongoing droughts in the region; those same droughts are now disrupting food production country-wide. California is known as the “vegetable basket” of the country, and for good reason. Former North Carolina farmer and author Tom Philpott says, “Just a few clusters of water-stressed counties in one state (California) provide 81 percent of US-grown carrots, 95 percent of broccoli, 78 percent of cauliflower, 74 percent of raspberries, 91 percent of strawberries, 66 percent of lettuce, 63 percent of tomatoes,” and it goes on and on, including a significant amount of US meat and dairy. And here in Western North Carolina, we’re just as dependent on California’s Central Valley as the rest of the country.

After several years of drought in the Sierra Nevada mountains, the annual snowpack that feeds rivers and irrigation canals in California has been slowly receding, and as the climate changes, the situation is predicted to get worse. A severe drought in California from 2011–2019 was the worst in recorded history and it followed one that was only slightly less severe from 2007–2009. The reduced snowmelt forced farmers to pump more water from underground aquifers—to the point that they’re reaching a critical state. If you could hear it, it would be a giant sucking sound.

Farmers in the Central Valley of California have relied on pumping more and more underground water to make up the difference for reduced rain and snowfall, until those aquifers have become dangerously depleted, and in many cases, they’re already tapped out. Because of the rapid depletion, access to those underground aquifers is becoming much more regulated under the California Sustainable Groundwater Management Act of 2014 that began enforcing water pumping restrictions beginning in 2020, in the hope that the aquifers have a chance to rejuvenate to some sort of balance.

But it’s a pay-to-play system, and large almond growers (a high-dollar specialty crop) with huge investments in infrastructure and Wall Street money behind them, are more willing to pay for water under these restrictions than vegetable growers are. Millions of acres are now planted in almonds, a very thirsty crop, mostly for export to countries like Japan and China. We continue draining the aquifers to produce a luxury item for export. That seems pretty nuts to me.

Because of the looming water crisis and water wars that are already underway, California needs to scale back agriculture to bring it in line with water realities there. US lawmakers, says Philpott, “should consider putting public policy and resources behind a strategic ramp-up of produce” in other farming regions outside of California. As water resources dwindle, we can no longer depend on California for most of our fruits and vegetables. We need to diversify food production regionally.

California should focus on feeding the fast-growing cities in the Southwest, like Phoenix and Las Vegas, and stop trying to grow vast monocultures of almonds for China and lettuce for New York. All regions of this country, and around the world, need to reorient their farm business models to feed local and regional consumers.

The Ground is Sinking
Because of the drawdown on underground water tables over recent years, the ground has been sinking by more than two feet annually in some regions of the Central Valley. That sinking ground has led to damage and breaks in irrigation canals, dams and pipes in the above-ground system that brings snowmelt from the Sierra Nevada mountains to the Central Valley. The new dips in elevations have led to major leaks and jams in canals, reducing flow by 20 to 60 percent and creating more reliance on underground water reserves. The sinking ground has also damaged bridges, roads, houses and other infrastructure. I think that’s a fairly obvious sign something unusual is going on.

Farmers are having to drill deeper and deeper to hit shrinking underground water supplies. And as the water levels drop, salinization happens when minerals become more concentrated, requiring new and expensive filtration systems to reduce salts that would otherwise kill most plants and make the water undrinkable. This puts pressure on rural communities and residents in California’s Central Valley for drinking water that comes from those same aquifers. Many rural communities are forced to drink bottled water now as the minerals like salt get concentrated in the remaining underground water table.

As we become less dependent on California, which is inevitable given depleted aquifers and climate change, how does a nation learn to feed itself regionally? As I noted in a previous, related column, it seems to me that there is some disruption already ahead for the Corn Belt in the Midwest because of electric vehicles. Forty percent of the US corn crop goes into our gas tanks in the form of ethanol—by law, gasoline must contain 10 percent ethanol. Both General Motors and Ford have committed to producing only electric vehicles by the year 2035, so what will we do with all that corn? Not many industries can handle a 40 percent drop in demand without some turmoil.

The Corn Belt is a massive 1000-mile-wide stretch of farmland that grows nothing but corn and soybeans, and most of that goes to feed cows and our gas tanks. We need to start transitioning some of that land into other crops, like vegetables and pasture-raised beef to feed nearby cities like Chicago, St. Louis and Minneapolis.

It will take time to develop the infrastructure and resolve labor issues and distribution systems, and it would be wise to get started now. Wells drilled into the underground aquifers in California are starting to make that sucking sound you hear when a kid hits the bottom of a milkshake with a straw. Not a happy sound.

Robert Turner is the director of the Creekside Farm Education Center and the author of Carrots Don’t Grow on Trees: Building Sustainable and Resilient Communities. To learn more, visit

Leave a Comment