By FELICITY BARRINGER
TULARE, Calif. — For the third year in a row, Mark Watte plans to rely on the aquifer beneath his family farm for three-quarters of the water he needs to keep his cotton, corn and alfalfa growing, his young pistachio trees healthy and his 900 dairy cows cool.
That is 50 percent more than he used to take, because the water that once flowed to the farm from snow in the Sierra Nevada has been reduced by a long dry spell and diversions to benefit endangered fish.
Since 2006 the surface of the aquifer, in the Kaweah subbasin of the San Joaquin basin, has dropped 50 feet as farmers pumped deeper, Mr. Watte says. Some of his pumps no longer reach far enough to bring any water to the surface.
If he lived in almost any other state in the arid Southwest, Mr. Watte could be required to report his withdrawals of groundwater or even reduce them. But to California’s farmers and developers, that is anathema. “I don’t want the government to come in and dictate to us, ‘This is all the water you can use on your own land,’ ” said Mr. Watte, 57. “We would resist that to our dying day.”
Although California has been a pathbreaker in some environmental arenas, like embracing renewable energy and recycling, groundwater rights remain sacrosanct. But the state government is facing growing pressure to embrace regulation.
Recent scientific studies indicate that in the long term, climate change is diminishing the potential for the Sierra snowpack to generate enough runoff. Aquifers are thus a crucial insurance policy for water users.
Critics argue that refusing to monitor and regulate groundwater could prove catastrophic to the state’s real estate sector and its $36 billion agricultural