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California Edging Closer to Regulating Groundwater for the First Time

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An irrigation ditch in the Central Valley. When surface water is scarce, farmers pump more groundwater to make up the difference. (Craig Miller/KQED)

An irrigation ditch in the Central Valley. When surface water is scarce, farmers pump more groundwater to make up the difference. (Craig Miller/KQED)

We hear a great deal about California’s reliance on its “frozen reservoir,” a reference to the (currently anemic) Sierra snowpack. We hear a lot less about the Golden State’s invisible reservoir, the water that resides in underground aquifers beneath our feet.

That’s about to change. Today, state Sen. Fran Pavley (D-Agoura Hills) puts a trio of water conservation bills before her Natural Resources and Water Committee, the centerpiece of which (SB 1168) is a frontal assault on the management of California’s groundwater, which, compared to other western states, is almost unregulated.

The current drought appears to be putting a new level of pressure on the groundwater debate. Cutbacks in state and federal water allocations have unleashed a drilling frenzy for water wells, and parts of the San Joaquin Valley are actually sinking from groundwater depletion below.

“The single most critical element in achieving [water] sustainability in California is groundwater,” Lester Snow told members of the State Water Resources Control Board at a hearing last week. Snow would know. For years he was the state’s chief water manager and now heads the relatively new California Water Foundation, a non-profit devoted, as he describes it, to “achieving sustainable water management” in the state.

aquiferaside

So what, exactly, is an aquifer? Click image to see full infographic.

In a good year, which is to say “wet,” Snow says that groundwater provides about 40 percent of the state’s water supply. In dry years, like this one, we lean on aquifers for 60 percent of our water (up from 40 percent as recently as 2 to 3 years ago).

“Effectively managed, it is the single biggest mechanism that gives us the flexibility to deal with the vagaries of our water system in California,” said Snow. “And if we can not get our hands around that, we will not have a sustainable water supply.”

But some, especially in farm country, are more than a little spooked by what getting our hands around it might entail. If you want to see farmers and ranchers turn ornery, make like you’re a state bureaucrat going after their water — or their right to pump as much as they need out of the ground. So as the battle lines begin to form, here are some key points.

State Intervention

California is the only western state that doesn’t exercise some degree of control over its groundwater. But how much control is too much? Matt Conant, a walnut grower in Sutter County, articulated the greatest fear of many in the ag community: “I’m afraid that the state will come in and try to over-regulate groundwater and surface water,” he told me outside a recent hearing of the State Water Resources Control Board.

But David Orth, who sits on the groundwater task force at the Association of California Water Agencies, says leaving it entirely in local hands may not be enough, especially when local and regional agencies are falling down on the job. “In those instances, we believe the state board should step in,” says Orth. “It creates, frankly, some bit of incentive for the locals to get together and get it right.”

That’s a fairly bold statement, coming from an organization that has, in the past, taken a firm stand against groundwater regulation. But Orth says times are changing.

“A year ago it was, ‘This is mine and I don’t want anybody to mess with my personal property right,'” he says. “Today, I think more and more people are recognizing that we have a choice; we can either let this continue to be managed in a somewhat insufficient way in some regions and see significant economic loss, or we can more effectively manage it and do so in coordination with the state, so we can protect that groundwater resource for decades to come.”

Early in April, ACWA proposed one of the most comprehensive blueprints yet for protecting the state’s aquifers. Pavley’s bill is likely to draw on that. The harmonic convergence only extends so far, however. As Jim Beck at the Kern County Water Agency told KQED’s Lauren Sommer, “California is not a one-size-fits-all when it comes to any regulation. And we believe groundwater is certainly one of those areas of resource management were local folks really understand what’s best for their area.”

Transparency

There’s a growing chorus insisting that whatever else happens, we need better data, to know what’s going on with our aquifers. Presently there is no coordinated tracking of aquifer health or the volume of water being pumped. Drillers file well completion reports, which can only be accessed by public agencies “conducting studies,” according to state law. But there is precious little information available on how much water those wells are producing.

Conant told me that farmers know from their wells, what’s going on underground. But no one else really does, though scientists have been trying to piece together the big picture with a combination of monitoring wells and satellites that measure ground density. And once the data is gathered for what individual landowners are pumping, who should have access to it? Should it remain on confidential file with public agencies or be available to anyone?

Pricing

Then there’s perhaps the thorniest question of all: whether farmers should pay for water that resides naturally under their own property. They’re already paying for the energy required to pump it to the surface. But now the water wonks are freely tossing around terms like “tiered pricing” and “groundwater management fees.” These are theoretical administrative charges to property owners, possibly based on how much groundwater they pump.

But the regulators can’t make this happen themselves. These ideas will have to coalesce into a groundwater bill that lawmakers can make stick. The current version of the Pavley bill contains a definition of “sustainability” but leaves it up to local districts to determine the volume of groundwater pumping that is sustainable in each are.

Despite the lingering uncertainties, even some water policy insiders have expressed surprise at what Jonas Minton of the Planning and Conservation League calls, the “unprecedented consensus” on a possible approach to groundwater management. At that state hearing last week, he pronounced, “This is the year to do it.”

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Category: Climate, Environment, Geology, News, Water

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About the Author ()

Craig is KQED's science editor, specializing in weather, climate, water & energy issues, with a little seismology thrown in just to shake things up. Prior to his current position, he launched and led the station's award-winning multimedia project, Climate Watch. Craig is also an accomplished writer/producer of television documentaries, with a focus on natural resource issues.
  • Alan Septoff

    When it comes to California’s groundwater, it should first “do no harm” and ensure that fracking-enabled oil development in the Monterey Shale doesn’t pollute it.

    But that would require Governor Brown and DOGGR to meaningfully acknowledge that unconventional oil development (i.e. fracking & acidizing) poses a threat. Which so far they seem unwilling to do.

    That’s part of the reason there’s such a groundswell of support for Holly Mitchell’s moratorium bill: denial isn’t good public policy. Not for climate change, and not for fracking either.

    You can learn more about fracking here: http://fracking.earthworksaction.org
    You can learn more about fracking-related earthquake risk here: http://shakyground.org

    • Dell

      Why are you against the science that shows this is safe and has lowered our carbon output in the US to our lowest in 20 yrs? Add 300k jobs estimated and you have a win win win for anyone living outside of Utopia.

      • Alan Septoff

        There’s no science showing it’s safe of which I’m aware. If you know of such, please share.

        On the other hand, I know of plenty of evidence showing it’s not safe. Most recently published in the National Institutes of Health Environmental Health Perspectives Journal: http://ehp.niehs.nih.gov/wp-content/uploads/advpub/2014/4/ehp.1307866.pdf

        Furthermore, our “carbon dioxide” output has lowered, but our “carbon” output has probably not. That’s because unconventional oil & gas production leaks methane — which is 80 to 120 times more powerful a greenhouse gas as carbon dioxide. A study published just last week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences reemphasized this point:
        http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2014/04/10/1316546111.abstract

        Regarding jobs: if you believe what the oil and gas industry tells you about its societal benefits, I’ve got a bridge to sell you too.

        • joehatesyou

          You are a freaking moron…I worked in the N Dakota oilfield for 4 years.

          I went out there with commercial driving experience but no oilfield exp.

          My first year aI made 80k, by the time I left I was make 110k

          Came back to Ca. paid cash for my house….

          There are so many excellent jobs in ND its laughable, Walmart employees mak 17 an hr cause no one works there. They are in the. Oilfields

          They oil companies can’t fill all the jobs

          You are a fool

      • Theodora Crawford

        You are guilty of drinking the Koolaid. Please point out the scientific reports that tout safety of fracking…just water use and methane release are bad enough, but secrecy around the chemicals pumped back underground are suspect and connections being made elsewhere between seismic activity and fracking activity are chilling. Before we let lose the dragons of greed and allow fracking in California, I urge caution on this complex and understudied issue. There should be no secrecy allowed when sending contaminants into our dwindling water supply.

        Would it not be better and ultimately more profitable for the O&G industry to invest in renewable energy?

        • tballard56

          “Would it not be better and ultimately more profitable for the O&G industry to invest in renewable energy?”

          For the record, if you care to look, most oil and gas companies are invested in alternative energy projects and associated research, but they recognize the reality of the situation is you cannot produce enough from these alternative energy sources to get to meet more than 10-15% of demand. If you look at the output of “renewable” energy sources, you could cover the state with enough windmills and solar farms to slice and fry the entire bird population of California and still not be able to come close to sustaining the population the state in energy needs.

          There is always hydroelectric, which is a clean, renewable energy source, but have you tried building a dam in California in the last 50-60 years? It is pretty much impossible – good luck there.

          Nuclear? That is probably the most efficient energy source there is, but forget building new nuclear plants in this country, unlike France that generates more than half of its electricity from nuclear plants.

          Coal? The EPA is regulating coal plants out of business and they are closing at record rates leaving some parts of the country in severe danger of energy shortages. A number of coal plants are making the switch to the natural gas that you abhor, but there are not many options beyond that to salvage these energy producers.

          Ethanol from corn? The cost and environmental footprint of ethanol production is substantially higher than that of oil and gas production – not to mention all the corn taken out of food production to produce the ethanol, which has a nasty tendency to increase food prices.

          Short of suspending reality and really, really believing that alternative sources can supply enough energy to support this country, your options are really oil and gas or freezing in the dark.

          My guess is when you plug in your espresso machine and it does not come on, or there is not enough electricity to power your hot tub, that you may re-evaluate your options and decide developing the energy options available to us was not greed after all, but a prudent investment in our future.

    • joehatesyou

      You are whining about fracking all the while californian breathe the filthiest air in the country

      You are a backwoods, liberal, dolt

  • David E. McCabe

    It is no accident that virtually all the Western States regulate both surface and groundwater. Neither respects property lines, and both are interrelated. Both are precious public resources and must be managed as such. Local groundwater management agencies, such as Monterey County Water Management, and Pajaro Valley Water Management Agencies would seem ideal. However, they do not work because of the recalcitrance of local political networks and the myopia of local agricultural interests. Regulation is difficult at any level but must be accomplished by the State or Federal agencies that can take a broad public interest approach. To do otherwise is to Balkanize a West-wide problem of the highest priority. Nearly every recipe calls at some point for the addition of water. Surface or ground is a detail !

    • Jim Reilley

      No Feds! Can you imagine putting Paul Ryan & Eric Cantor in charge of CA water policy? Ideally everything should be done at the local level but the Ag interests have too much power so you have to have a state agency/board do it with equal members from the AG & Enviro communities.

      • Dell

        In what world do u think Ryan & comp would be less competent than Steinberg and Co? And you think Sac and shrimp boys are trustworthy over locals? My lord your bubble is tight.

  • Seeker

    And here Cal has allowed unregulated irresponsible gluttonous building and growth of new homes and communities all while knowing there was not a sustainable water supply to support this growth (and the cry of the idiots that the landfills were all at near capacity as well). It was and always is nothing more than Gov corruption (at all levels) and greed which lines their pockets while they impose larger or additional taxes on everyone.