For the first time ever, the California state legislature last week passed legislation imposing restrictions on drilling for underground water.
Water management officials lobbied vigorously to get this legislation through, citing the California drought and some of the things that are happening in California because of the serious drought:

• Wells are drying up: The town of East Porterville is handing out bottled water to citizens whose wells have dried up. There is now a six-month waiting list to get a new water well dug in East Porterville and other Fresno-area agricultural districts.
• Reservoirs are at historic lows: every main water reservoir in California is now at record lows. You can drive a car across the floor of many lakes that are usually full of boaters and houseboats.

Changes In California Ground Water Levels.

Over the past ten years, there have been some significant changes in California groundwater levels. According to the California Department of Water Resources, the following groundwater changes have occurred in California:

• 37% of California wells have seen a decrease in water levels of more than 10 feet;
• 52% of wells have decreased up to 10 feet;
• 11% of wells have actually shown an increase in groundwater levels.

The new legislation empowers local control of groundwater. But it goes a step further: if localities fail to adequately manage their underground aquifers, the state can now intervene. Water managers in 126 of more than 500 groundwater basins — the ones designated high or medium priority — must develop groundwater-management plans by 2020 or give way to the state.

And not everyone is pleased. “I shudder to think that the state will enforce stringent water-removal limits,” states Marvin Meyers, an almond grower in California’s Central Valley. “For the government to tell us how we do it is frightening.” But water officials insist that something must be done to limit or control the amount of water that is taken out of the ground, and lobbied aggressively to push through the latest round of legislation.

Water Authorities Considering Other Water Conservation Measures.

In addition to the new groundwater rules established last week in the California legislature, state water officials are considering other measures and initiatives to either reduce the amount of water consumed or to find new water sources:

• Building desalination plants to make drinking water from sea water. The first such desalination plant, currently being built in Carlsbad at a cost of over $1 billion, is expected to go online soon, with other proposals in front of water officials to build several more desalination plants.
• Consumer education and awareness to conserve water;
• Fines on violators or wasters.
• Bringing water to the parched west coast from as far away as the Mississippi River. This ambitious measure would cost tens of billions of dollars and would involve a pipeline from the Mississippi to the Colorado River.
• A $7.5 billion bond initiative is on the ballot this November, providing $2.8 billion for new water-storage structures.

Lester Snow, formerly head of California’s Water Resources Department and currently executive director of the California Water Foundation, says about the new legislation limiting groundwater drilling: “The ability of people to keep drilling was the equivalent of deficit spending.” Snow states that “We have to balance our groundwater basins and manage our groundwater sustainably.” The new law will be a step in the right direction.

The drilling regulations were opposed heavily by California farmers, who traditionally dislike being told what to do by the government. Water resources officials lobbied heavily to get these new laws passed.

Tim Quinn, who heads the Association of California Water Agencies, took some serious flak from many of the association’s farmer members when it supported the groundwater drilling initiative. Quinn said, “There’s part of the groundwater legislation that’s going to have us doing some very painful things locally”, noting that, “Groundwater management is part of a good solution to a problem, a solution that doesn’t involve a contraction of the economy.”

“If we don’t deal with this properly, you’re going to see local economies crash,” states David Orth, who is general manager of the Kings River Conservation District in the San Joaquin Valley. “We’re going to have people go out of business because of the lack of water. We’re going to have an uncontrolled market adjustment.”

He added, “Growers have told me, ‘We don’t need no stinking groundwater legislation. If I need to pump deeper, I can pump deeper.’ ”

Water officials had warned that if the proposed groundwater legislation failed to pass, there would be serious disruptions to many regional economic systems. It is estimated that 60% of the water needed for California agriculture comes from groundwater. In a “normal” year, 39% of the water consumed in California comes from below ground. In areas with very little surface water, like the central California coast from Carmel to Santa Barbara, groundwater supplies 80% of the water used.

It is widely expected that California Governor Jerry Brown will sign the new measures into law, making California the last southwestern US state to establish groundwater controls.

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