Opinion
Get Opinion in your inbox -- sign up for our weekly newsletter
Editorial
Opinion Editorial
Editorial

California needs to get a grip on its groundwater

Groundwater in California has gone without regulation for decades. We shouldn't have to wait even longer
Two state bills that would provide a framework for management of groundwater supplies need to be a priority

It's not just reservoirs and aqueducts that are drying up in the state's drought. Under the ground, aquifers that store water relied on by more than three-quarters of Californians are being over-pumped, often to such an extent that the earth above them sinks. Other states regulate pumping, or require local authorities to do it, to ensure that groundwater is managed sustainably and fairly. Here, though, regulations are so spotty that neighboring farmers often drill for the same water, subject to no agreements on how it is to be divvied up and no checks on over-pumping. It is as though they're digging for gold instead of pumping what should be a renewable and sustainably managed public resource.

The fight over groundwater is so contentious that competing interests have for decades resisted any attempt to regulate it. Gov. Jerry Brown first recommended that lawmakers pass measures managing groundwater back in the 1970s, but to no avail.

Brown called for legislation again this year as part of his comprehensive Water Action Plan, and this time, given the severity of the drought, even the wariest water-rights owners have recognized that, without change, California's groundwater could be pumped to depletion, causing aquifers to draw their water from lakes and wetlands, which would in turn damage sensitive habitats and reduce surface water available for human use, or destroying the aquifers themselves by drawing in saltwater or contaminants.

State Sen. Fran Pavley (D-Agoura Hills) and Assemblyman Roger Dickinson (D-Sacramento) each have authored bills that would take modest but crucial steps toward providing a framework for local management of groundwater supplies. Lawmakers should consider their work — which may emerge this week in a unified bill — a priority for California.

The need for groundwater management extends to all parts of the state, but not equally. In some groundwater basins, users already carefully track how much water they withdraw and return to the aquifer, giving them a basis for agreements among themselves about how to divide what is there and when to stop pumping until rains or water transfers recharge the underground supply. Other basins have no monitoring or measurement, leaving no way to balance long-term supply of, and demand for, water. Some basins are already subject to court adjudications, and some are at least partially contaminated. Legislation should take these differences into account.

If lawmakers had taken up the governor's proposal when he first gave it, more than 30 years ago, California would be in a better position today to weather the current drought. We should not have to wait another three decades to prepare for the future.

Follow the Opinion section on Twitter @latimesopinion

Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times
Related Content
  • Compulsory kindergarten: Still a bad idea

    Compulsory kindergarten: Still a bad idea

    Kindergarten hasn't been its old self for a long time. After decades of increasing focus on academics, it recently became more standardized as well; the curriculum for California's 5-year-olds is now aligned with the Common Core academic standards. Kindergarten teachers are no longer preoccupied...

  • Back to school, again and again

    Back to school, again and again

    Even in places that remain in touch with the rhythms of agriculture, few seasonal markers prove as heady, reliable and poignant as the reopening of school. Every September the crosswalks ripen with kids in their back-to-school clothes; the long yellow buses harvest our lanes and streets. First...

  • Return to New Orleans - an open hand, a welcome home

    Return to New Orleans - an open hand, a welcome home

    Like most people with people "at home" in New Orleans, I found myself both here and there in 2005. By late August, I was daily monitoring weather maps two time zones away. I watched how a "tropical system" gathered force, how it garnered enough ferocity to be granted a name. Katrina looked serious,...

  • Making the Gun Free School Zone Act better

    Making the Gun Free School Zone Act better

    For the last 20 years it has been illegal in California to carry a firearm within 1,000 feet of an elementary or secondary school or on the grounds of a college, trade school or university, whether public or private. The Gun Free School Zone Act, which paralleled a similarly named federal measure,...

  • A treasure hunter, an L.A. park and the curse of the severed hand

    A treasure hunter, an L.A. park and the curse of the severed hand

    Recently I took up metal detecting as a hobby. While Los Angeles is, of course, the greatest place to live in the world, our city parks are too new to offer much excitement for "dirt fishers." The East Coast, with its deep-rooted (though not-so-deeply-buried) history, is more fertile.

  • The hip dullness of Canada's politics

    The hip dullness of Canada's politics

    I spent part of August on vacation in Canada, only to find myself on what was once called a busman's holiday: Canadians are in the throes of a national election campaign, just like us. And, just like us, they're grouchy about the state of their democracy.

Comments
Loading
71°