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Connect the Drops

California Needs Transparency in Groundwater Pumping

A bill in the legislature would require information about proposed new groundwater wells in critically overdrafted basins to be made public, bringing badly needed transparency to groundwater management, writes Ceres’ Kirsten James.

Written by Kirsten James Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
Glen Gordon, engineering geologist with the California Department of Water Resources, measures the water depth at agricultural wells in Colusa County on March 17, 2016.Kelly M. Grow/California Department of Water Resources

“What gets measured, gets managed,” is an old business adage about the importance of transparency that’s relevant to California’s groundwater situation today. Simply put, it’s about making sure you have the information you need to achieve what you set out do.

Currently, in some of the most at-risk basins in the state, those who rely on the groundwater for their sustenance and livelihood are not privy to the information that’s needed to responsibly manage the resource – such as when new wells go in, what they’re being used for or how much water they will be pumping out of the basin. The recently formed local groundwater sustainability agencies don’t have this information, either. So all they can do is cross their fingers and hope that the well – literally – does not run dry.

A key aspect of California’s Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA), adopted in 2014, is greater transparency around the use of this shared resource. But until the local groundwater sustainability agencies finalize and fully implement their plans, which may not occur until 2040, gaps in data-sharing will remain a problem. We need to “prime the pump” now around greater transparency on water inputs and outputs to ensure successful SGMA implementation.

Just look at the staggering number of new wells that were drilled after SGMA passed, many at the height of the drought. In 2015 alone, a record 2,500 wells were dug in the San Joaquin valley, five times the annual average for the previous 30 years. In critically overdrafted basins – including Tulare, Fresno and Kings – approximately 1,000 wells have been drilled since SGMA was adopted.

A bill, S.B. 252, now moving through the state Assembly, is designed to serve as prelude to SGMA to show us how transparency can lead to more sustainable supplies and at the same time “stop the bleeding” in this interim period. Ultimately this will be crucial to the effective implementation of SGMA.

S.B. 252 would require local governments in critically overdrafted basins to make public vital information about proposed new wells, such as the location, depth, capacity and estimated extraction volume.

It also requires new well permit applicants in critically overdrafted basins to notify all adjacent landowners of the application for the well permit, where the permit can be found for review and when there will be a public meeting.

The latter provision is designed to protect individual well owners, as well as sustain an overall groundwater basin. Under our current system, your neighbor could be planning to drill a bigger, deeper well that could impact your own well, but you might not know about it.

S.B. 252 sets up a more productive planning process whereby neighbors in critically overdrafted basins will need to talk with each other about proposed new wells, and come up with solutions that work for everyone putting straws into the same glass.

The bill does not call for a moratorium on new wells in critically overdrafted basins, nor give local groundwater agencies or neighbors the power to stop new wells. It simply calls for increased transparency and better planning and aims to prevent conflict by involving more people in management at an earlier stage.

Beyond better transparency, the state is going to need to come up with innovative solutions to sustain its dwindling groundwater supply.

Winter rains and snow cannot replenish the unprecedented withdrawal the state made from its groundwater bank account during the epic, five-year drought. Sixty percent or more of the state’s water supplies came from groundwater during that period, when typically the number is around 40 percent.

California farmers in the Central Valley, in fact, pumped 9.5 cubic miles (39.6 cubic kilometers) of groundwater, around seven times the amount of water in Lake Shasta, the state’s largest reservoir, during the drought, according to recent research.

All that groundwater pumping has worsened California’s long-standing problem with land subsidence. The San Joaquin Valley is especially hard-hit and is experiencing significant damage to its infrastructure – including its canals, pipelines, dams, levees, roads, railways, bridges, building foundations, sewer lines, laser-leveled fields and even its wells. Repairing that infrastructure will hit taxpayers in the pocket book.

To replenish the state’s groundwater resources, some interesting projects that are now in the experimental phase deserve to be scaled up.

For example, growers are successfully experimenting with groundwater recharge by redirecting floodwater on to farm fields, rather than allowing it to wash into the ocean.

Don Cameron, general manager of Terranova Ranch and a pioneer of groundwater recharge, recently told me that the groundwater sustainability agency that he’s chairing is working toward a groundwater sustainability plan that will “probably include cutbacks in the amount of water a grower can pump for his land unless we can do some type of augmentation to where we can bring additional water into the system,” adding that “really, right now the only extra water we can see is floodwater that’s coming during periods of heavy rainfall and heavy snowfall.”

Ultimately, these novel approaches to groundwater replenishment can only succeed if a full accounting of all the withdrawals and inputs into a basin is at hand. That’s why the California legislature must pass S.B. 252. It would bring badly needed transparency that would benefit all stakeholders who rely on and must make business and financial decisions around the shared groundwater resource of critically overdrafted basins.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Water Deeply.

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