Editor’s note: If you have a bucket of water that is one foot deep and you use one inch of water a day, it takes twelve days to empty the bucket. Most people understand this concept at a very early age.
Especially over the last fifty years, many aquifers around the United States have become so depleted it’s no longer feasible to use them for irrigating farmland. Even parts of the great Ogallala Aquifer, which covers portions of eight states, have been drained beyond recovery for the foreseeable future.
Here in the San Joaquin Valley, overdrafting to the point of severe subsidence has been a common occurrence. Last fall, news that parts of Merced County are sinking one foot a year caught many people by surprise, but it shouldn’t have. Overdrafting in the past has caused some parts of the Valley to sink more than twenty feet.
The recent explosive expansion of almond orchards on Stanislaus County’s east side also caught people by surprise. Virtually all those thousands of acres of trees are dependent on groundwater. As the orchards began drawing down more and more groundwater, nearby wells began running dry. When the magnitude of the drawdown began to be fully understood, alarm bells rang throughout the region.
Now, a twenty-one member Stanislaus County Groundwater Advisory Committee has been formed to search for a solution to what looks like a looming disaster. The Committee has gotten off to an inauspicious start, in part because Stanislaus County Supervisor Jim DeMartini left shortly after it was formed, calling it “a waste of time.”
On the surface, it may look like DeMartini is indulging in pessimism. But anyone who knows about groundwater and committees in California hasn’t much reason to be optimistic.
California has a long history of meetings and studies by local and state authorities concerned about problems caused by overdrafting of groundwater. With few exceptions, the meetings and studies have been failures.
And they’ve been failures not because the committee members disagree, but because of agreement on a key point: Virtually all committees, no matter the time and place, have concluded that the control of groundwater must remain in the hands of local authorities. Consequently, even though thirty percent of statewide users of water depend on it, California has no statewide regulation of groundwater.
But if local regulation had proven successful, at some point the problems caused by overdrafting would have begun to be mitigated or solved. In fact, the problems have gotten progressively worse.
Today, the Stanislaus County Groundwater Committee is faced with a situation almost identical to that faced by scores of committees over many decades, not only in California but in virtually every arid region of the United States. Committee members have already begun crying out that they need research and data, but who among them really thinks Stanislaus County groundwater will be different from groundwater anywhere else?
The simple fact is, the lesson of the empty bucket has almost never prevailed in debates about groundwater. And even though there’s hope Stanislaus County will be different, history suggests this committee will reach the same anti-government and anti-regulation conclusions of previous committees statewide.
This kind of agreement isn’t accidental. It’s the result of antipathy for government and regulations of any kind. It’s the triumph of ideology over science, history, and common sense.
This time however, the situation is too serious to ignore. This time, absent strong local restrictions, state authorities will have no choice but to finally intervene in a situation that should have been addressed long before it became such a critical crisis.