With water tables plummeting in places from the wine country of Paso Robles to the almond orchards of the San Joaquin Valley, the state Legislature and Gov. Jerry Brown could soon adopt measures to retool California’s approach to groundwater.
Water agencies, experts and academics have offered a growing list of recommendations for policymakers in Sacramento, and one of the worst droughts in California history has given new urgency to the prescriptions for preventing more wells from running dry.
BEYOND DROUGHT: Read the series and other recent water coverage
Unlike other Western states, California has left the pumping of groundwater largely unregulated. The lack of statewide oversight, which has been described by some as laissez-faire or even a “Wild West” approach, has meant that owners of private wells can often pump as much as they wish, while some local water districts have permitted their aquifers to decline dramatically.
Brown and other state officials have recently put new emphasis on the issue of protecting groundwater supplies. The governor’s drought legislation, for example, included $1.8 million to hire 10 new state regulators who will focus on addressing “unsustainable groundwater pumping.” Lawmakers have introduced groundwater bills, and the governor’s Office of Planning and Research convened two workshops in Sacramento in the past month to explore how the state can combat declining water levels.
State officials say the issue has shot to the top of the water agenda, attracting more attention than ever before.
“It’s hot,” said Frances Spivy-Weber, vice-chair of the State Water Resources Control Board. “I think there probably will be legislation, whether it will be this summer or next year I don’t know, but I have never been as optimistic as now about something actually happening.”
The move toward regulating groundwater could add a new layer to California’s century-old system of administering water rights, which in 1914 established rules for divvying up rights to surface water, but left out groundwater.
Now is the first time since then, Spivy-Weber said, that the state has considered making “such a monumental change in the way water is managed in California.”
The push for reform reflects a growing recognition among water managers across the western U.S. — given prolonged drought, receding aquifers and concerns about climate change — that it’s vital to consider groundwater along with surface water in long-term water plans.
A host of new proposals from California water agencies and other entities emphasize continuing local control of groundwater, while granting local officials more funding and enforcement authority. Many have agreed that the state should take on a larger role as a “backstop,” with new authority to step in when aquifers are dropping and local officials can’t or won’t meet state goals to do something about it.
“Local agencies do know what is needed. Sometimes it’s hard for them because they don’t totally control every straw that’s in your groundwater, and it’s sometimes hard to corral your neighbors if your neighbors don’t want to be corralled,” Spivy-Weber told The Desert Sun in an interview. “So there are limitations that everyone recognizes, and that’s the reason everyone so far that I’ve seen acknowledges that there is a need for someone to be able to step in if the locals can’t deal with it. But it is a last resort.”
In a list of recommendations released this month, the Association of California Water Agencies, or ACWA, called for keeping local agencies in charge in most instances while providing them with new tools and criteria for managing groundwater. The state would have the authority to temporarily intervene when local water agencies don’t meet established goals.
Those recommendations came after a state water plan released earlier this year called for better management to reverse sharp declines in groundwater levels in some areas. The State Water Resources Control Board last year suggested changes such as more monitoring and assessment of water levels, and establishing “sustainable thresholds” of groundwater use.
It’s not yet clear how those broad goals will translate into specific measures, and the lack of statewide oversight for now means that lawmakers will work from a relatively blank slate.
“Since we have very little,” Spivy-Weber quipped, “there’s a lot to work with.”
At stake are the state’s future water supplies as well as the costs of drilling more wells and pumping from greater depths. Groundwater accounts for about 30 percent of California’s water supply in a normal year, and that number has risen sharply during the drought, with farmers and others relying more heavily on wells.
Business is booming for well-drillers in the San Joaquin Valley, with more farmers hiring drilling rigs to reach the receding water.
Even before the drought, so much water was being pumped to irrigate crops in the San Joaquin Valley that its aquifers were rapidly retreating — and the ground has been sinking.
Last year, the U.S. Geological Survey released a report showing that in some areas, the ground has been sinking at a rate of nearly a foot per year. The settling ground will mean higher infrastructure costs in the future, possibly affecting flood control channels and influencing plans for California’s high-speed rail system.
Another hotspot of groundwater depletion is Paso Robles in San Luis Obispo County, where irrigation for vineyards and other farmland has taken a toll. With some wells going dry, county officials last year responded with an emergency ordinance that requires any new pumping to be offset by reduced groundwater use elsewhere.
With the drought compounding such water crises, pressure is mounting for the state to act.
“I think everyone agrees that A, there’s a problem, and B, that we should resolve it,” said Andrew Fahlund, deputy director of the California Water Foundation, which soon will release its recommendations for the governor and the Legislature.
“Everyone is in really strong alignment that management best happens at the local level, that local agencies need to be empowered with more tools, better tools to actually manage groundwater,” Fahlund said. “The state has an important role to play by providing them with funding, technical support and, as a last resort, direct intervention.”
Fahlund said his organization’s suggestions boil down to giving local water agencies better capabilities to manage the supply and demand of water. He likened it to a person balancing a checkbook by watching the amounts flowing in and out, and said the state should help local agencies manage their accounts.
Those recommendations are similar to those made by ACWA, a coalition of public water agencies with about 440 members. Among other measures, ACWA suggested developing uniform requirements for managing aquifers, clearly defining “sustainable groundwater management” in state law, giving local agencies new tools to restrict pumping, and making groundwater data more accessible.
“It sets a very high bar for the future for groundwater resources all around the state,” said Craig Ewing, president of the Desert Water Agency and a member of the ACWA task force that drafted the recommendations.
One groundwater bill, SB 1168, was introduced by Sen. Fran Pavley, D-Agoura Hills, and was approved Tuesday by the Senate Natural Resources and Water Committee. The bill calls for local and regional oversight, while authorizing the State Water Resources Control Board to manage groundwater under certain circumstances.
That bill and another relating to groundwater, AB 1739, are expected to evolve and draw on recommendations from the California Water Foundation, ACWA, and others. It’s unclear what sorts of measures will find the most support among lawmakers.
Ewing said that for the Coachella Valley’s water agencies, ACWA’s recommended changes would largely confirm the work the agencies are already doing, but would set new thresholds for future planning. For other agencies, such as those in the Central Valley, he said, “it will be a revolutionary change.”
Given the rapid depletion of its aquifers, Ewing said, “the Central Valley is especially going to have to face the music of some of their practices.”
A recent Desert Sun analysis of USGS groundwater data found that, in more than 3,000 wells across the state, water levels declined in about 62 percent of the wells between 2000 and 2013. Even with many wells lacking data for part of that 14-year period, the average drop in water levels among the declining wells was more than 15 feet. A total of 121 wells had declines in water levels of 50 feet or more, most of them in the San Joaquin Valley and parts of Southern California.
Groundwater is being depleted more rapidly during the drought, which is one of the most severe ever recorded in California. For the first time in its 15-year history, the U.S. Drought Monitor website now classifies 100 percent of the state as being in a drought, with more than 76 percent of the state in an “extreme” or “exceptional” drought — the two worst categories.
While some of the most critical situations have arisen in the San Joaquin Valley, the aquifer beneath the Coachella Valley has also been declining for years, as more water has been pumped out than flows back in. Water levels in much of the valley have declined despite deliveries of imported water.
This situation points to a need for the area to use water in smarter ways, said Eric Corey Freed, a Palm Desert architect and author who leads the Coachella Valley branch of the U.S. Green Building Council.
“I’d like to see us change our general attitude about the water here and realize that it is precious and that it isn’t going to last forever and that it is dwindling, and because of our past poor management of it, we’re now in a position where we have to act,” Freed said.
“We need to look at the per-capita water use, and then provide everybody with a water budget, and in doing so, we can manage our water systems better, get them back on track, restore the aquifer to where it needs to be,” Freed said.
In California, there has traditionally been a “strong local control culture,” but the state will likely get involved in establishing criteria that local agencies will need to follow, Ewing said. Decisions about land use and development, he predicted, will also increasingly be tied to the availability of water.
In a report released this month, Stanford University’s Water in the West program said that decisions about land use aren’t well-coordinated with groundwater management. As a result, the report said, expanding development and the proliferation of more water-intensive crops have led to chronic overdraft and declining water tables in many communities.
“We have to link land-use decisions to groundwater management so that we make sure that we don’t grow in a way that outstrips our water supply,” said Leon Szeptycki, executive director of the Stanford program.
Some of the ideas being raised involve strengthening standards and procedures that are already in place. Water agencies, for instance, already prepare regional management plans and sign off on water supply assessments for large housing developments.
Those assessments, Szeptycki said, are “the first step down a path, and we just need to go a lot farther down that path.”
Optimism and doubts
One central aim in changing California’s approach to groundwater is to bring uniformity to a system that is now a “mish-mash,” said Sen. Ben Hueso, a San Diego Democrat.
“In some instances, there’s zero management. In others, it’s done agency by agency. We have all these kinds of districts that manage groundwater in different ways,” Hueso said in an interview. “Many people are demanding that the state get involved in these issues of groundwater management so that at least when you go from one area to the next, there is some level of connectivity in a policy, that we are managing our resources in the same way.”
Hueso said better information about groundwater is crucial, as is an overarching statewide strategy for dealing with groundwater problems.
“The locals depend on a statewide strategy,” Hueso said, “and we really don’t have one in the state.”
Given the lack of regulation, fights over groundwater have often landed in court. A total of 23 California groundwater basins have been adjudicated by the courts, with judges stepping in to determine how much water should be pumped by various parties.
Such cases are costly and often drag on for years. They could become less prevalent if the state takes on a bigger role in overseeing aquifers that are rapidly declining.
Thomas Harter, a UC Davis professor and chair in water management and policy, said that if the latest proposals are adopted, “I think that’s going to make a huge difference going forward in terms of groundwater management.”
Harter said he expects to see much stronger enforcement in areas where aquifers are being severely depleted.
Others are much less optimistic.
“I don’t think anything radical is going to come out of this,” said Michael Campana, a professor of hydrogeology and water resources at Oregon State University. “There doesn’t seem to be a change in the political will.”
Aside from Texas, California is the only western state that doesn’t have statewide groundwater management. Arizona has a state groundwater management program that applies to certain areas.
Campana said the proposals in California still rely on local control, and he doesn’t see anything substantially different from the status quo.
“It seems to me that the state really has to step up to the plate and become a little more involved,” Campana said. “The state needs to be more proactive about managing groundwater.”
Some of the proposals now before the governor and lawmakers are similar to ideas raised after the drought of 1976-77. A water commission established by Jerry Brown, who was then governor, offered a series of recommendations related to groundwater, but they were never adopted due to opposition to some of the other proposals.
“It is interesting how these things come back around,” Fahlund said. “I think the difference today of course is that we have several million more people in the state, we have an agricultural industry that has transformed and changed dramatically since then — many more acres in production, a lot of different kinds of crops than we had back then — so the demands are different, and of course we didn’t have the issues of climate change to contend with.”
Those mounting pressures on the state’s water supplies seem to be driving the discussion in Sacramento, increasing the likelihood of something that many water wonks have been advocating for years: a bigger state role.
ABOUT THE SERIES: Beyond Drought
As California confronts some of its driest times on record, the state also faces bigger, more systemic problems of growing water scarcity that go beyond the drought. Even in years with more rainfall, there often isn’t enough water to slake the thirst of agriculture and growing cities and towns.
Heavy pumping of groundwater is drawing down aquifers, while reservoirs are running low in places from the Central Valley to the Colorado River. This growing gap, with demands for water regularly outstripping supplies, is prompting difficult questions about what sorts of uses should take precedence and how to stretch water supplies further.
In this series of occasional articles, The Desert Sun is examining how the region is hitting its water limits and how those constraints are affecting life and prompting discussion about rethinking California’s water priorities.