Why California Groundwater Policy Must Change

Subsidence in San Joaquin Valley
Subsidence in San Joaquin Valley

It’s often said that California is the only state that doesn’t regulate groundwater, but that’s not exactly true. In California, one rule always applies. Though unwritten, it exists in the form of dogma more powerful than words graven in stone: Any official, at any level, whenever speaking of groundwater, must assert emphatically that local control is the best of all possible alternatives.

No matter that history, science, and current realities provide overwhelming evidence against it, the “local control” dogma reigns supreme.

Here in the San Joaquin Valley, history shows local control has meant nothing good. An iconic photo taken in 1977 shows that overdrafting groundwater resulted in subsidence of nearly thirty feet in one portion of the Valley. Recent data show that parts of Merced County are sinking at the rate of nearly a foot a year. Local control has been the rule all the while.

And just try to find a scientist who says the current practice of allowing unrestricted pumping makes sense. Aquifers don’t stop at property lines. Nonetheless, under current rules, a landowner with powerful pumps can drain the water from under a neighbor’s feet. There’s nothing fair about it, but it’s a policy hallowed by decades of local control.

In the current drought, the state’s long-established practice of promising more water than it can deliver has finally been exposed for the fraud it really is, mainly because groundwater depletion is now so severe it prohibits the traditional “Plan B” for drought conditions. Absent the “savings account” represented by groundwater, farmers are fallowing land, losing orchards, and looking to get out of farming altogether. Given the depleted state of the aquifer in so many places, they have no other choices.

Most who have ample groundwater are operating on borrowed time. The new almond orchards on the east side of the Valley are tapping water thousands of years old. Once it’s gone, the recharge will take millennia.

Those who have plentiful supplies of groundwater usually owe their wealth to nearby rivers, lakes, or reservoirs. In fact, their groundwater is just diverted surface water. Someday soon it may occur to people that tapping surface water for one’s own uses doesn’t necessarily serve the public good, no matter how old the practice.

At present, the groundwater crisis is putting even more demand on surface water. Once again, calls to eliminate water for rivers, fish, and Delta farmers are drowning out common sense. Senator Dianne Feinstein is supporting measures that would overturn decades of litigation protecting fisheries, farmers, and endangered species.

The Sacramento Bee called Feinstein’s bill an “overreach.” That’s putting it mildly. In fact, Feinstein seems to wish to continue the practices that have led to the current crisis. Following the patterns of the past guarantees a future even grimmer than the present.

California water policy needs to change, and the place to start is with groundwater. When history, science, and present-day realities all point to a head-on crash, it’s time to change course.




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