The Hidden Truth about Valley Water

San Joaquin Valley subsidence by USGS

The recent deluge throughout Northern California has caused equal parts celebration and outrage. Celebration because it would appear to some the drought is over and outrage because those same celebrants are demonizing anyone who says we’re still in a water emergency.

As always, the favored targets for righteous indignation are the government and, “those in environmental groups.”

“Why would the state water board tell us we’re still in drought?’ asked the editorial board of the Modesto Bee last Sunday. Why indeed? Maybe, just maybe, it’s because the state water board is evaluating water needs based on science rather than clamor and outrage. Maybe the water board realizes that even a flood-producing downpour can’t replace five years of near-waterless drought.

And maybe the water board knows that the hidden connection between surface water and groundwater has created widespread ignorance about how much water we really have, no matter how much rain we get. Consider the following from hydrologist Stanley Leake of the U.S. Geological Survey:

“States have their own take on this. Or they choose to not address it at all. In some cases they pretend that there is no connection.”

According to Abraham Lustgarten of Pro Publica, “Leaders in California and Arizona acknowledge that their states have done this [avoided addressing the surface and groundwater interconnection], at least in part to avoid the grim reckoning that emanates from doing the math accurately. There is even less water available than residents have been led to believe.”

Not only is there less water than most California residents believe, demands for water keep increasing as farmers continue planting thirsty almond orchards and city leaders keep urging ever more growth. Passage of Modesto’s growth-inducing Measure L was encouraged by an unlikely trinity including the Chamber of Commerce, the Bee, and the local Farm Bureau, and this was before the recent heavy rains.

South of Modesto, subsidence in areas near Fresno from spring 2015 to fall of 2016 was up to 20 inches over an area that extends seven miles. “Subsidence” is sinking of land caused by overdrafting groundwater.

And speaking of Fresno, the entire city is over 70% dependent on groundwater, just like most every other city in the San Joaquin Valley, Modesto excepted. When political and media leaders throughout the Valley protest the state’s proposals for increased flows, they promote ongoing ignorance about the interrelationship between rivers and groundwater. And when they urge never-ending growth, they compound their error by magnitudes.

There’s no mystery about groundwater and rivers. It’s been known for decades that pumping groundwater can deplete streams entirely, and diverting water from rivers has devastating effects on groundwater recharge. But when the San Joaquin River dries up every year and over eighty percent of water from the Tuolumne River is diverted for urban and agricultural uses, the effects on groundwater aren’t even acknowledged by Valley leaders and media, let alone accounted for.

Some Californians think that because the state has instituted the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, groundwater problems are finally being addressed. But according to Fran Pavley, the state senator who helped draft the plan, there’s no requirement to address interconnections between groundwater and surface water until 2025, and the requirement for true sustainability is many years beyond that.

And keep in mind that even in states that have regulated groundwater for decades, groundwater depletion has become a major problem. The truth about Valley water, like the truth about water throughout the west, has been hidden not only beneath the sinking surface of the land, but by an ongoing promotion of ignorance by Valley leaders and media demanding ever more growth. The real truth about Valley water is there’s not enough to support current demands, let alone increasing demands for more.







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