Groundwater reform more important than water bond

Photo by Kelly M. Grow/California Department of Water Resources

Delivery point of the Coachella Valley Water District’s groundwater replenishment facility. Imported Colorado River percolates into the valley’s aquifer, replenishing 40,000 acre-feet of water annually. Photo by Kelly M. Grow/California Department of Water Resources

By Jay Lund and Thomas Harter

California lawmakers recently found extraordinary consensus in approving a $7.5 billion water bond for the November election ballot. If the measure wins, however, future generations will not necessarily reap many of the promised water supply benefits without additional actions.

To significantly improve its resilience to drought, California must quickly get a grip on the runaway depletion of its dwindling groundwater resources.

In this year’s drought alone, California farms and cities are expected to pump more than 20 million acre-feet from aquifers. That is more than all the surface water diverted from the state’s rivers and streams. And it is far more water than could physically be delivered from all the additional reservoir capacity proposed for bond funding.

Groundwater is and always will be California’s primary buffer against droughts. Yet many parts of the state have been drawing on aquifers as if they were bottomless savings accounts.

The pump-as-you-please practice threatens the sustainability of the state’s most profitable agriculture, particularly permanent crops such as vineyards and orchards. Continued overdraft furthers land subsidence and seawater intrusion, worsens water quality and diminishes fish and wildlife habitat dependent on groundwater. As water tables drop, the annual costs of pumping and drilling more and deeper wells quickly exceed those of financing the proposed water bond – about $500 million in state general funds a year, for 30 years.

Source: California Department of Water Resources

Source: California Department of Water Resources

Agriculture and rural residents will initially bear the brunt of increased pumping costs and diminished reliability of groundwater during droughts. In the longer term, pumping as usual means groundwater simply will not be an available alternative to many Californians who lose access to surface water during droughts.

The current drought poses a historical opportunity to bridge a major gap in California water regulation that other western states remedied almost a century ago.

While the water bond contains many useful elements, the Legislature has before it much more important legislation for ensuring California’s resilience in droughts. Two proposals, Senate Bill 1168 carried by Sen. Fran Pavley, D-Agoura Hills (Los Angeles County), and Assembly Bill 1739 authored by Assemblyman Roger Dickinson, D-Sacramento, would require local agencies to manage groundwater sustainably.

Sustaining a prosperous civilization in California’s dry climate requires firm accounting of all major water resources, including groundwater. When management of a resource as valuable as groundwater is lacking, overdraft and litigation fill the void. Investments that depend on groundwater then become riskier, leading water users to pursue more secure, but more expensive and environmentally damaging water supply sources such as deeper wells and new reservoirs. The added risk of unreliable groundwater also can increase the cost of credit for agriculture and rural development.

Increasing the security and enforceability of groundwater and surface-water rights is the most effective action the Legislature can take to help this dry state weather droughts and reduce water costs to cities and farms.

Jay Lund, a professor of civil and environmental engineering, and Thomas Harter, a groundwater specialist, are with the Center for Watershed Sciences at UC Davis. 

Further reading

Lund, J.R., Medellin-Azuara, J., Harter, T. (2014). Why California’s agriculture needs groundwater management. California WaterBlog. May 26, 2014

Lund, J.R., et al. Taking agriculture conservation seriously. California WaterBlog. March 15, 2011

Grabert, V.K., Harter, T., Parker, T. (2014). Modernizing California’s groundwater management. California WaterBlog. June 22, 2014

Howitt, R.E., Medellin-Azuara, J., MacEwan, D., Lund, J.R. and Sumner, D.A. (2014). Economic Analysis of the 2014 Drought for California Agriculture. Center for Watershed Sciences, University of California, Davis, Calif. 20p

Nirappil, Fenit (2014). California Water Bond Won’t Be a Drought-Buster. Associated Press, Aug. 16 , 2014

Williams, Juliet (2014). California water bond signals historic compromise . Associated Press, Aug. 14, 2014

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10 Responses to Groundwater reform more important than water bond

  1. Groundwater over-drafting is the most serious environmental problem facing CA agriculture. My professors at Fresno State talked about it when I was there in the 1970s.

  2. Rich Persoff says:

    Assembly Bill 1739 and Senate Bill 1168 are frauds, in that giving local districts power to monitor and regulate withdrawal from underground aquifers is giving them no power!!

    How can I make this claim?

    Because any attempts by local agencies to develop new law on water rights will be met with well-financed law suits, and every water agency is terrified by this prospect.

    Result: Nothing will get done.

    For “local agencies to manage groundwater sustainably”, they must be free from the threat of legal action. No local Agency can afford to take on the Farm Industry, and so they will be unable to follow up on these ‘fine opportunities’ to manage water sustainably.

    Unfortunately, everybody for their own reasons wants this emperor (Assembly Bill 1739 and Senate Bill 1168 ) to appear clothed. For openers:

    Farmers & Farm Bureau, because it preserves the status quo; legislators because it appears they have done something; local water agencies, because they can say they have power, but can find reasons not to exercise it; environmental advocates because they can claim success in finally succeeding in changing public water law.

    What might move this is for one agency to act courageously, hoping to set legal precedents. Significant goals, plus others that would need to be identified, would include mandating monitoring – well meters — ; charging for all water withdrawn by a well-owner, perhaps above a low minimum related to the acreage irrigated; limiting the amount of water that could be withdrawn, on an annual per-acre or per-well amount keyed to rainfall or stream-seepage-fed recharge or water table level, and severe fines for non-permitted pumping or withdrawal of water from streams and rivers.

    Farmers in other states get on perfectly well under these conditions, without crybaby-poormouthing.

    N.B. I am on the Board of a local Water Agency, but these opinions are mine alone.

    • jaylund says:

      Thanks for these thought-provoking comments.

    • Re: “N.B. I am on the Board of a local Water Agency…”

      … The agency being the Pajaro Valley Water Management Agency (PVWMA), formed by State Senator Henry Mello in 1983 in the Pajaro Valley in Monterey Bay, where the Farm Bureaus of Santa Cruz and Monterey Counties appoint 3 of the 7 member board, where around 25% of this country’s berries are annually grown, where UC generates over $5 million in yearly berry “IP” royalty revenue (it’s 5th biggest revenue generator), where the late Marc Reisner, author of “Cadillac Desert”, stated here in 1998 that the “worst salt water intrusion problem in the World” was then and still today is occurring, and where the “Water Berry Ponzi Scheme” has been running wild and unrestrained for decades … with no end in sight until all the ground water commons are either gone or permanently fouled with both seawater and nitrates.

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