Viewpoints: New groundwater rules shouldn’t punish success

Published: Saturday, Aug. 30, 2014 - 12:00 am

Clearly, it was past time for the Legislature and the administration to tackle groundwater management in California. As the state experiences the worst drought in a generation, groundwater problems that developed over decades are being greatly exacerbated in some parts of the state as water users turn increasingly to the aquifers under their land.

The Legislature moved Friday to enact and send to Gov. Jerry Brown a set of groundwater management bills that are seen by many as the most significant changes in water law in a century. The new laws will create – for the first time – a state oversight role in regulating the pumping of groundwater. Much of the impetus for this has been about the parched San Joaquin Valley, where drillers work overtime to deepen and drill new wells, groundwater overdraft is making the land sink, and water quality problems abound.

Last-minute amendments and frenzied negotiations resolved some outstanding concerns at the end of the legislative session. However, lost in this sweeping, one-size-fits-all legislation, were lessons learned from regions like ours that have successfully managed groundwater for years.

The unfortunate consequence is legislation aimed at resolving serious issues in other parts of the state could undermine the locally driven, voluntary efforts the Sacramento region has undertaken to ensure our own groundwater supplies meet the long-term needs of our communities. Implementation of the new laws needs to ensure that doesn’t happen.

We in the Sacramento region have also seen firsthand the drought’s impact on our surface waterways, as Folsom Reservoir and the American River dropped to threateningly low levels earlier this year. To cope, Sacramento-area residents reduced their water use by nearly 20 percent, leading the state in responding to the governor’s call for water conservation. Water managers here also moved from using surface water supplies to groundwater. The difference is our shift to groundwater is part of a plan that has been in place for more than 15 years.

Building on the historic Water Forum Agreement in 2000, we created three groundwater management institutions – the Sacramento Groundwater Authority, Sacramento Central Groundwater Authority, and West Placer Groundwater Management Program – to address each part of the region’s varying needs.

Within this institutional framework, local water providers have invested many millions of dollars in projects and programs needed to recharge, store, extract and move groundwater around our community. We contribute to our groundwater savings account in wet years so it’s available in dry years. Since 1998, more than 200,000 acre-feet of surplus water has been stored in the groundwater basin in Sacramento County. This locally driven management system and the investments we have made have been critical to meeting the region’s needs during the current drought – without damaging the long-term health of our groundwater.

One of the law’s primary authors has explained that the new law will ensure that every region has a system that performs the same function as the Sacramento Groundwater Authority, which created a groundwater management framework to ensure adequate supplies year after year. We are pleased to serve as a model for the rest of the state.

The irony is that the legislation puts the future of successful agencies, such as the Sacramento Groundwater Authority, at risk. It mandates expensive, unfunded and potentially unnecessary technical studies; requires state, rather than locally defined institutional structures; and puts good actors at risk of noncompliance with the new law for problems not within their control.

The state certainly has an interest in ensuring that groundwater is well-managed. We hope the new laws prove to be a step in that direction. Implementation of the legislation must correct flaws to ensure that state involvement in groundwater management supports and learns from locally driven successes like those of our region, and only focuses regulatory attention as a last resort in the areas that really need it.


John Woodling is executive director of the Regional Water Authority and Sacramento Groundwater Authority, and formerly managed groundwater programs at the California Department of Water Resources.

Read more articles by John Woodling



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