We know a fair amount about the drought that has now afflicted California for about three years: It has been the driest period since record-keeping began in the 19th Century. If their wells are deep enough, farmers can still pretty much pump all the groundwater they like, while homeowners can be fined up to $500 for watering down a walkway. Water use actually rose after Gov. Jerry Brown asked for a voluntary 20 percent cutback.
A large seawater desalinating plant will open by 2016 in the north San Diego County city of Carlsbad. Ground has subsided in many parts of the Central Valley as aquifers have been pumped faster than they could be replenished. Weather forecasters predict next winter may be as dry as the last one.
But there remains much that we don’t know, as detailed in a Stanford Magazine article by writer Kate Galbraith. It turns out that what we don’t know may be more fundamental than what we do know. For example, because more than 255,000 homes and businesses in 42 communities lack water meters and because of the almost unlimited, unmetered ground water pumping, no one knows just how much water California uses or needs.
In Sacramento, scene of the meeting where state regulators this summer decreed there be less watering of lawns all over California, about half the homes and businesses lack water meters. They can use all they like without any financial or legal consequence unless they have the temerity to hose down a walkway or sidewalk.
For another example, we have no idea how much water lies in most California underground lakes, also known as aquifers. We do know that golf courses in the Coachella Valley portion of Riverside County, including Palm Springs, Rancho Mirage and the aptly-named Indian Wells, remain quite green even as the state Capitol lawn and many others go brown. Drought or not, a vast underground lake beneath most of that area has so far kept water shortages there at bay. Plus, much of the water sprayed onto that valley’s myriad greens and fairways eventually filters back down to the aquifer.
But it’s the extent of aquifers in the Central Valley that’s most important to know. As farmers expend tens of thousands of dollars deepening wells to reach the new, lower levels of the aquifers, no one has the foggiest notion how long this can go on.
Meanwhile, state law effectively permits farmers, water districts and anyone else with a well to pump all the water they want, the presumption being that water beneath a property belongs to the property owner. Never mind that ground water has no idea who owns it or where property lines may lie. Which can mean that if one well owner pumps excessively, others in the area get left high and dry.
Meters, Stanford Magazine says, could fix some of that. “If everyone had a meter on their well and you knew how much everyone was using and you knew what the aquifer levels are, you could sort of calculate everybody’s contribution to aquifer depletion,” Leon Szeptycki, executive director of Stanford University’s Water in the West program, told the magazine. “But if you don’t know any of those things, they just become things to fight about.”
So groundwater regulation bills now wending their way through the Legislature could be vital to planning the state’s water future. So could expanded aerial surveys of the Central Valley’s land formations and levels, which can indicate how much of a region’s groundwater has been lost over time.
Every other Western state now regulates groundwater use. But California operates blindly, and could pay a heavy price if it doesn’t begin sizing up its real situation, since groundwater is the usual backup when surface water supplies from aqueducts and reservoirs run low.
Yes, conservation is important, but even more vital is information. Right now, California simply doesn’t have enough upon which to base vital decisions that become more urgent with every passing month of drought.
Thomas D. Elias is a writer in Southern California. email@example.com