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Coalition forms to manage California's groundwater

PoliticsLaws and LegislationGovernmentRoger DickinsonCalifornia DroughtFran Pavley
Two lawmakers propose legislation to protect threatened aquifers
California is the only state that refuses to protect groundwater
The water table and land are sinking in the San Joaquin Valley

So let me get this straight: The state government is telling us we can't hose down the driveway and should feel guilty about watering the lawn. But it's OK for somebody to pump all the groundwater he wants?

The policy-makers are padlocking flush toilets and shutting off showers at some state parks. But they're too lazy or cowardly to regulate people's wells?

In an average year, 40% of the water Californians use comes from the ground. In this drought, it's close to 65%, according to the California Water Foundation.

Yet, California is the only western state that refuses to manage groundwater.

As a result, water tables have fallen dramatically in many areas — especially in the crop-intensive San Joaquin Valley — and the land even is sinking.

"California property owners have the right to all the water under them," says state Sen. Fran Pavley (D-Agoura Hills), who heads the Senate water committee.

"That began in the Wild West. And we haven't adapted to modern times.... It's competition between property owners over who gets the most water. I call it a race to the bottom."

Many farmers can't drill fast enough, paying anywhere from $50,000 to $500,000 to bore deeper into the aquifer.

"The best job in the world now is to be a water driller," Pavley says. "People are lining up for you….

"Meanwhile, average people can't compete financially with these large landowners. They don't have access anymore to well water and can't afford to drill deeper."

As more water is pumped and not replenished, the aquifer falls further. "You shouldn't be able to drill as deeply as you want when it's detrimental to others," the senator contends.

Pavley, once again, is trying to manage California's diminishing groundwater, pressing legislators to pass a regulation bill before they adjourn for the year about Labor Day.

She's allied with Assemblyman Roger Dickinson (D-Sacramento) who says, concerning the drought: "Never let a good crisis go to waste."

Pavley and Dickinson are sponsoring separate bills that would essentially do the same thing: Command local governments to manage groundwater so it becomes sustainable. And if they don't, the state could step in and regulate.

The senator tried something like this five years ago when legislators adopted a broad water package that contained an $11-billion bond — since shelved because voters undoubtedly would have been repulsed by the pork stench — and a plumbing makeover for the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta. But the groundwater regulation was blocked by interests objecting to bureaucrats messing with folks' wells.

This time, the Pavley-Dickinson effort is strongly backed by a broad coalition that includes major groundwater users.

Tim Quinn, executive director of the 430-member Assn. of California Water Agencies, says "there is a nervous consensus in the water management world that we have to bite this bullet and deal with the groundwater crisis. There's a lot of angst, but no one is saying don't do it. Our position has astounded a lot of people."

Quinn says his group, which includes many irrigation districts, wants groundwater to be managed locally. "But no longer do we favor local control no matter what," he says. "It has to be an exercise in local responsibility. And if not, local areas may be vulnerable to state regulation."

Though Quinn stops short of calling for regulation of crops, which devour about 80% of California's water, he does say this: If a grower wants to plant large orchards of, say, water-guzzling almond or pistachio trees, he should have to show how that would fit into the region's groundwater plan.

"You can't just plant, poke and pump forever — adding new demands that exacerbate conditions," Quinn says.

Conditions are dire in many areas where groundwater has been pumped much faster than replenished.

Over the last century, the Central Valley has lost enough groundwater to fill Lake Tahoe — or enough to inundate the entire state by 14 inches. Between 2003 and 2009 alone, it lost enough to fill Lake Mead.

The aquifer has fallen hundreds of feet in some areas, and not just in the San Joaquin Valley.

Over on the Central Coast, under those cutesy, comfy vineyards in northern San Luis Obispo County, the water table has dropped 80 to 100 feet in the last three decades.

In the San Joaquin, land has been sinking with the aquifers.

"There are areas where the surface has subsided over 30 feet in the last 40 years," says Lester Snow, former state water director. "It's falling over a foot a year and playing havoc with roads and canals."

Wonder how that would work for the bullet train.

Snow heads the private California Water Foundation, which is pushing for regulation. Last week, it released a private poll showing overwhelming public support for managing groundwater.

You'd think this would be a no-brainer. What has taken so long?

"In California," Snow says, "groundwater has been untouchable. It has been like the third rail. What has changed now is the drought and people starting to say, 'Enough is enough.'"

Next month, there'll be a major legislative attempt to both regulate groundwater and craft a new, odorless water bond that commits big money to, among other things, aquifer cleanup in the San Fernando Valley.

If the politicians can't manage that, they shouldn't have the gall to tell us not to water our lawns.

Follow @LATimesskelton for news about state government and politics.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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PoliticsLaws and LegislationGovernmentRoger DickinsonCalifornia DroughtFran Pavley
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