On her ranch, the water table dropped by 60 feet. The well that supplied water to her house went dry. The same thing happened to hundreds of people who relied on shallow wells in the nearby town of East Porterville. "People were without water, and they had to bring water tanks in. They had no water at all!" she says.
During that drought, there was growing pressure to enact limits on groundwater use. Susana De Anda, executive director of the Community Water Center, in the town of Visalia, was among those pushing for change. "When 90% of our valley residents rely on groundwater, we have to be sure that we're sharing that for all beneficial uses," she says. "That means that we should not over-pump."
In 2014, California passed the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act. It requires big changes, but they will be enforced only gradually, over the next two decades.
Under this law, overuse of the aquifer must end by 2040. By that date, use and replenishment of the state's groundwater must be in balance.
State and local officials now are coming up with limits on groundwater use to achieve this. In practice, it could mean that farmers in the San Joaquin Valley, which occupies a large area of the Central Valley between Sacramento and Bakersfield, will have to cut their groundwater pumping by 70% or 80% by 2040, compared to what they're using this year.
In order to enforce these limits, some authorities are requiring meters on wells. Others are monitoring water use through satellites that can detect which crops are being grown.
The reaction among farmers has been mixed. Some, like Steve Jackson, agree that limits are necessary, even though groundwater has kept his farm alive in drought years. "It is a lifeline, but I think that it's a lifeline that we've all taken for granted, and it's not infinite," he says. "I think that's what's coming home to all of us."
The limits probably will mean that some land will no longer grow crops, although there's dispute about how much. One study, backed by the agricultural industry, predicts that a million acres, or 20% of the fields in the San Joaquin Valley, will be taken out of production. Other researchers think it will be half that much. Farmers are likely to adapt by shifting their limited water supplies to their most valuable crops. They also will be able, for the first time, to buy and sell groundwater allotments, shifting the water to the places where it's worth the most.