State Groundwater Regulation May Be Looming
Serious state efforts to regulate California’s groundwater use and management that many in irrigated agriculture have been anticipating for more than two decades now appear to be right around the corner.
State agencies and policy makers have been increasingly addressing groundwater problems, largely because of rapidly escalating overdraft and land subsidence conditions. The Brown administration and state Legislature are showing signs of planning to soon take up the issue. It is possible that groundwater policy may show up in what would likely be a massive budget trailer bill within the coming weeks.
What such legislation would propose is not yet known but some of the possible key issues include defining standards, attempting to define “groundwater sustainability, the extent of the state’s regulatory role, local governance, whether and how limits on groundwater pumping and extraction should be imposed, fees and authorities related to new wells.
At an April 17 hearing in Sacramento, there was considerable discussion on the importance of keeping the most groundwater authority in the hands of local agencies, although the Brown administration said there must be a definition of when the state should step in if local agencies are not doing their job.
Timothy Quinn, Association of California Water Agencies Executive Director, said the state cannot on its own impose sweeping groundwater controls and then contend all water issues are resolved. Every one of the pending water infrastructure, supply and environmental problems must also be resolved, he indicated.
California, unlike most Western states, for the most part does not regulate groundwater although some basins are controlled through adjudication processes.
“Opponents have attacked it as an attack on property rights,” said Lester Snow, former Department of Water Resources Director. “But the irony is that you need rules to protect property rights. Today there is a whole different tone in this conversation.” Some farm groups have become open to considering various groundwater management proposals, such as metering and pumping limits.
‘LOT OF CONCERN’
Fresno County Farm Bureau Executive Director Ryan Jacobsen, who is also a Fresno Irrigation District Director, said possible state controls are sparking “a lot of concern.”
“It’s no secret that groundwater is what allows farmers to get through these critically dry years,” he told the San Jose Mercury News. “And when you start talking about what could be some very substantial regulations and restrictions, that’s going to hamper their operations.”
The newfound interest in, and debate over, groundwater management controls comes as many hundreds of new wells are being drilled or deepened across the valley as water tables plunge as a result of drought and regulatory curtailment of Delta water export pumping.
There is a terrible irony in all this, as the California Farm Water Coalition (CFWC) noted recently in response to some news media groundwater coverage.
“The 20th century water projects that were built in large part to offset groundwater overdraft can’t be relied upon to continue to serve that purpose,” the CFWC says. “Environmental policies that reduced surface water deliveries to farms, homes and businesses caused many people to return to groundwater to keep their businesses viable.”
That is particularly true in the Central Valley Project’s Friant Division.
Millerton Lake and the Friant-Kern and Madera canals were constructed some six decades ago to establish a dual system of conjunctive water use – employing surface water and groundwater – along the southern San Joaquin Valley’s East Side. The system worked well in overcoming extreme groundwater overdraft and, in many cases, exhaustion that occurred during the 1920s and 1930s.
Greater numbers of dry years – including 2014’s zero Friant allocation – along with water supply reductions under river restoration have placed great new stress on groundwater and increased overdraft. Local aquifers are now providing water being used to keep crops alive.
Some Friant districts such as Orange Cove, Stone Corral, Lindsay-Strathmore, Lindmore and Terra Bella along with municipal users in Terra Bella, Strathmore, Lindsay and Orange Cove have little or no groundwater available and are to receive emergency health and safety supplies through the Friant-Kern Canal this year.