Though California has finally joined every other state in regulating groundwater usage, we shouldn’t believe regulation will necessarily promote groundwater sustainability.
If regulation were the answer, the great Ogallala Aquifer wouldn’t be facing total depletion. If regulation were the answer, the Colorado River Basin wouldn’t have lost over 41 million acre feet of groundwater over the last ten years. That’s enough water to serve residential use for the entire US population for eight years.
Both the Ogallala Aquifer and the Colorado River Basin are in states that regulate groundwater, yet both are perilously overdrafted. What gives?
The fundamental problem is that for many people, groundwater depletion is a simple necessity. The 500,000+ residents of the city of Fresno, for example, receive 85% of their summer water from the ground. In winter, the figure is still an astonishing 70%.
Overall, the Central Valley runs a 500 billion gallon deficit in groundwater use every year. The largest portion of the overdraft is in the southern part of the Valley, from Stockton south.
Overdrafting groundwater isn’t just a way of life, it’s also an opportunity for the good life. When almond growers put industrial-sized wells in Stanislaus County’s eastern foothills, they knew pumping groundwater wasn’t sustainable over the long haul. They also knew it was sustainable long enough to make stock market returns look like a sucker’s bet.
According to the Modesto Bee, one group of foothills investors has already spent over $100 million dollars on ripping soil, hiring workers, buying trees, and paying for access to surface water available on a contingency basis. That kind of investment in a region plagued with poverty and high unemployment not only creates dependencies, it gives the investors tremendous political influence.
Local businesses welcome almost any project that produces revenue, and they don’t care whether it drains resources or not. Tell them the good times are only going to last fifteen or twenty years and they’ll sing, “Let the good times roll.”
When local authorities see megabucks invested, they’re happy for the boost to the economy. They’re also often awed by the investors. Anyone with tens of millions of dollars commands immediate respect and not a little fear. That kind of money will buy a small army of public relations experts, consultants, and attorneys.
One of the themes during meetings of the Stanislaus Water Advisory Committee (WAC) is water law. More than once, County Counsel Jack Doering has been asked whether he’s qualified on water issues. Coming within the context of overdrafting and a possible moratorium on drilling permits, the questions amount to veiled threats. In fact, for investors whose business plan includes stalling for the next profitable harvest, time-consuming litigation is just one way of running out the clock.
The boost to the local economy and the threat of litigation give major players in the water game tremendous political leverage. That leverage is used to intimidate local politicians, who’ve learned alienating money and power is usually a short path to political oblivion. It’s the major reason Stanislaus County Supervisors created the WAC. The committee offers political cover for supervisors who don’t wish to displease powerful people.
Intimidation is a potent tool in the water game, but it’s only one of many. Mythology also works in favor of corporate water miners. Probably the biggest and most effective myth about groundwater is that it’s best left under local control. Given groundwater has long been under local control both in California and in states that regulate it, and given groundwater sources are dangerously depleted even in regulated states, it’s clear local control doesn’t necessarily lead to sustainability. In fact, it appears just the opposite is true. But that’s the great thing about mythology: Facts don’t matter.
Even though geologists and hydrologists agree there are no such things, it’s not unusual for certain members of the Stanislaus Water Advisory Committee and even the offshoot Technical Advisory Committee to talk about “underground rivers” and “isolated caverns of water.” Belief in underground lakes and rivers is widespread and thus easily exploitable by those who wish the public to believe in the myth of inexhaustible resources.
And even though the U.S. Geological Survey and research institutions like U.C. Davis have done exhaustive research on geology, groundwater, and the needs of agriculture, most WAC members continue to say they can’t act without data. Whenever facts are readily available, water miners and their allies resort to mystification. Especially in agrarian regions like Stanislaus County, the water needs of specific crops are widely known. Nonetheless, for months member of the WAC complained they didn’t know how much foothills almond farmers were pumping.
They’ve also complained they don’t know how deep the foothills aquifer is. However, the U.S. Geological Survey has broad studies of groundwater depths throughout the Central Valley, including Stanislaus County. Even if such studies weren’t available, professional hydrogeologists can provide generally accurate estimates of effects on the water table from pumping for almond orchards.
Stanislaus County Geologist Dr. Horacio Ferriz is a highly esteemed consultant on water issues and a full professor at CSU Stanislaus. Recently, he estimated pumping groundwater for almond orchards in eastern Stanislaus County would lower the water table thirty feet a year. Combined, rainfall and drip irrigation probably recharge the foothills aquifer less than a foot a year. It follows that nut farming in the foothills is unsustainable—but that’s a conclusion members of the WAC wish to avoid at any cost.
As we’ve mentioned, political manipulation is a major tool in the water wars, but psychological manipulation is just as often brought to bear. The two greatest psychological weapons are denial and wishful thinking. Despite incontrovertible evidence that many San Joaquin Valley communities lack safe drinking water, most of us can’t imagine groundwater reserves running dry.
Even many of the experts on the WAC seem to believe that all we need is a wet year and dry wells will fill up as the water table returns to normal. The fact that we’ve been running at a severe groundwater deficit through wet years as well as dry simply doesn’t register.
Lately, some WAC members have been touting a plan to deliver surface water to foothills almond farmers. Aside from the fact no one can imagine where they would find the 120,000 acre feet of water the orchards require every year, why would anyone want to pump water uphill to speculators who’ve already shown contempt for the public trust? Only denial and wishful thinking could make sympathetic characters out of speculators whose business plans include depleting one of the last great aquifers in the San Joaquin Valley. Nonetheless, east side water miners have found plenty of supporters.
When regulation doesn’t work to achieve sustainable use of groundwater, people blame drought conditions or cite government failure to build enough dams and reservoirs. Almost no one considers such fundamental principles as carrying capacity and deficit spending of natural resources.
Recent studies have concluded California has promised more than five times the amount of water it can deliver. Those empty promises have been made possible by long-established patterns of denial and wishful thinking. Regulation doesn’t work when so many factors operate against it. In Stanislaus County, those who follow local water issues are getting a close-up look at many of the reasons why regulation fails. Their experience might well be typical for much of the rest of the state.