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  • Jae C. Hong / The Associated Press

    Fourth-generation rice farmer Josh Sheppard walks across a dried-up ditch at his rice farm in Richvale in May. Throughout California’s dry interior, those with water to spare are auctioning off their private, underground caches to the highest bidders.

  • Dan Nelson

Viewpoints: Groundwater can’t be regulated without increasing surface supplies

Published: Friday, Aug. 1, 2014 - 12:00 am

Increased groundwater pumping is under growing scrutiny. The devastating consequences of a third year of drought, coupled with over-regulation of surface supplies, have increased momentum in Sacramento for state intervention in local groundwater management. The governor, legislators and others are calling for potentially far-reaching changes in the use and management of groundwater – new fees, new requirements and new bureaucracy to administer it all.

Protecting California’s groundwater is vitally important for everyone. However, we cannot legislate new approaches to groundwater management in isolation; the surface supply shortages driving the overdraft of groundwater supplies must also be addressed if we are to successfully protect and restore our precious groundwater basins.

California’s farmers and rural communities are ground zero for the drought. For two years in a row, most of the family farms that depend on the state and federal water systems have received little to none of the surface water supplies they have contracted to pay for. As a consequence, the University of California estimates that in 2014, the state’s farmers have been forced to fallow 430,000 acres of productive farmland, more than 17,000 jobs have been lost, and California’s economy has suffered a $2.2 billion loss, three-fourths of it in agriculture. Today, many displaced workers now stand in food lines.

Therefore, it should come as no surprise that Central Valley farmers are drawing upon the groundwater safety net beneath their land to make up for the lost surface water supplies. This is not a new phenomenon. Before the major state and federal water systems were built, farmers relied almost entirely on groundwater supplies to produce a harvest. Many groundwater basins became stressed, some to the point of suffering irreversible land subsidence.

Major water projects were conceived in part to provide surface water to protect and recover strained groundwater basins. Dependable and sufficient surface supplies relieved groundwater overdraft, slowed subsidence to a halt and preserved groundwater for use during drought. Now, these gains are being lost.

Everything changed as state and federal policymakers began to redirect California’s surface water supplies to meet new demands imposed by a range of environmental laws. These requirements have strained our water systems to operate in ways they were never designed to serve. As a result, our ability to prepare for, cope with and recover from drought has been greatly compromised. But unlike drought, these policy shortages continue irrespective of weather.

In 1992, the Central Valley Project Improvement Act redirected over 1.5 million acre-feet of surface water per year away from farming to fish and wildlife management. In 2008 and 2009, the issuance of federal biological opinions for Delta smelt and salmon demanded that even more of our fresh water supplies flow into the ocean. The cumulative total of these policy decisions has dedicated over 3 million acre-feet per year of surface water to environmental management purposes.

San Joaquin Valley farmers have responded responsibly to decreasing supplies and increasing uncertainty by investing nearly $3 billion to improve water use efficiency. They are among the most efficient users of water in the world. But conservation alone is not enough.

Groundwater management must be part of a comprehensive effort that includes recovery of the surface supplies that many areas once relied upon. These supplies helped relieve pressure on groundwater and preserved it for use during droughts. Recent studies, including one underway by the Nature Conservancy, indicate that increased surface storage capacity, together with conveyance improvements in the Delta, will provide the greatest benefits for groundwater. These investments will help to both restore stressed groundwater basins and capture abundant surface flows when they are available.

California’s water history teaches us that if groundwater is to be regulated, it must be managed in concert with surface water. Failing to restore sufficient and reliable surface water supplies while restricting access to groundwater would be like giving cough medicine to a patient with pneumonia. We would be treating a symptom, but not curing the real problem.


Dan Nelson is executive director of the San Luis & Delta-Mendota Water Authority, representing 29 public water agencies in the western San Joaquin Valley and San Benito and Santa Clara counties.

Read more articles by Dan Nelson



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