The Public Eye: As drought persists, frustration mounts over secrecy of California’s well drilling logs

07/06/2014 12:00 AM

10/08/2014 12:05 PM

Inside a government warehouse along a noisy freeway in West Sacramento is a set of metal shelves holding more than 100 carefully labeled cardboard boxes.

Inside those boxes are tens of thousands of state records that could help scientists and water policy specialists better understand and protect California groundwater.

But while all other Western states make such records – known as well completion reports, or well logs, for short – open to the public, California does not.

Here, access to the documents is restricted. While some government agencies and researchers can view them, many scientists and the public at large cannot, a barrier many say reins in knowledge about groundwater supplies as the state struggles with one of the worst droughts in recorded history.

“We’re basically blindfolding ourselves,” said Laurel Firestone, co-director of the Community Water Center, a Visalia-based nonprofit, who argues that access to the records could help improve water quality. “If California is going to be serious about managing its groundwater, it can’t possibly do that without accessible and transparent data.”

By now, the contours of California’s groundwater crisis are familiar: the dried-up wells, sinking farmland, over-tapped aquifers and growing push for more state oversight. But on the edges of that drama is a back story that’s been largely overlooked about groundwater data, government secrecy and scientific opportunities lost.

Groundwater is critical to California. Without it, agriculture collapses, cities shrink, ecosystems die. Yet while our knowledge of rivers and reservoirs is exhaustive, we know far less about water stored inside the earth, including how much can be safely pumped without depleting aquifers and sowing long-term harm.

“Imagine trying to manage a reservoir where you’re not sure what the boundaries of the reservoir are. You’re not sure how much water gets in, how much water gets out, or what the level is,” said Graham Fogg, a professor of hydrogeology at UC Davis.

“Groundwater management is kind of like that,” Fogg said. “You are trying to manage systems that are ill-defined and ill-understood.”

Well completion reports help chart that underworld. Like medical charts, they are filled with data and notes that help researchers and water managers understand a complex system they can’t actually see.

In all other Western states, such records are accessible to whomever wants to see them – from university professors to civil engineers, real estate agents to the media. But in California, well logs are barred from public inspection by a 63-year-old law written to keep data gathered by well-drilling companies from falling into the hands of competitors.

“The lack of information about well logs makes no sense, particularly as we are trying hard to manage a diminishing public trust resource,” said Jeffrey Mount, senior fellow at the Public Policy Institute of California, a nonpartisan think tank in San Francisco.

“This is another one of those anachronistic statutes that does not belong in a modern water management system,” Mount said.

As water tables drop to record lows, even some drillers now favor more transparency. “We know there can’t be very good planning without some availability, because that’s the only knowledge we have – all of us,” said John Hofer, executive director of the California Groundwater Association, which represents well drillers.

“By and large, we are much more amenable to making them available,” Hofer added. “Personally, I think the time has come to have better science and regulations. We want to be on the cutting edge of the new science.”

Two legislative efforts in the past three years to make the records more accessible have failed. Opposition remains strong among farmers who fear release of the records could raise questions about who’s pumping how much and where, and invite lawsuits and restrictions on groundwater use that is unregulated in many places. Others worry that disclosing the locations of public supply wells could lead to an act of terrorism.

“I don’t see a real benefit for throwing a lot of that information out for public demand,” said Paul Wenger, president of the California Farm Bureau, the state’s largest farm organization. “Those who are in authority and who have a need to know have access to it now.”

Gov. Jerry Brown disagrees. In 2011, he vetoed a bill that would have expanded well log access to academics and other groundwater professionals because he felt it was still too restrictive.

“The original intent of this bill recognized that wise management and use of groundwater supply requires public disclosure of well logs,” Brown wrote in his veto message. “Unfortunately, as amended, this bill now unduly restricts the use of these reports and imposes severe criminal penalties for disclosure.

“California is the only Western state that does not provide ready access to well reports,” Brown added. “That should be changed.”

Connecting the dots

The roots of California’s closed system reach back to post World War II when sewage and industrial waste were fouling groundwater, in part because of poorly built wells that transported pollution into aquifers.

Lawmakers wanted information. They passed a law in 1949 requiring drillers to submit reports for wells they bored. “Such information … would be invaluable” for managing groundwater quality, a legislative committee reported. “It would also provide a tremendous fund of geologic information which is now lacking with regard to many of the underground reservoirs of the state.”

Compliance, though, was spotty because drillers did not want to disclose data that might help competitors find the best places to drill. So two years later, lawmakers came up with a solution. They passed a law, California Water Code Section 13752, declaring that well logs “shall not be made available for inspection by the public….”

“It is believed that if such information is not open to public inspection, more complete and accurate information will be received,” said a 1951 memo from the state’s deputy director of public works to Gov. Earl Warren.

The strategy worked. Over the past six decades, California’s stockpile of well logs has grown to about 800,000 documents. Laid end to end, that’s enough paper to circle Lake Tahoe twice.

Well logs are short – but not simple. Only one page long, they are crammed with data about well drilling that is squeezed onto a maze-like grid of lines and boxes. Filling one out is so complex, the state provides drillers with a 29-page instruction manual, complete with references.

But while the quality of the data varies, those dry forms help scientists navigate a subterranean landscape that provides 30 percent to 40 percent of the state’s water, even more during a drought. Logs don’t record how much water is pumped, but they do reveal where wells are located, their depth, diameter and the geological material they are bored through.

Researchers can use such information to create computer images that chart the size, shape and thickness of water-bearing layers and how water cycles through and between them. Such efforts help managers better understand how aquifers function and – in an era of drought and climate change – how much pumping they can withstand without being depleted.

“It’s kind of like playing dot-to-dot,” said Chris Petersen, vice president of the Groundwater Resources Association of California, which represents professionals in the field. “If you have a lot of dots – and those dots are drillers’ logs – you can put together a high-resolution picture of what’s happening in the sub-surface.

“If you have limited dots, you’re still going to get some picture, but it may or may not be accurate,” Petersen added. “That’s why logs are so important.”

While the public can’t view logs, the Legislature did make an exception in the 1951 law that allowed access “to government agencies for use in making studies.” That passage has been narrowly interpreted, so that even scientists who work for public universities sometimes can’t gain access.

“It was maddening, absolutely maddening,” said Fogg, the UC Davis hydrogeologist who three years ago was thwarted in his attempts to obtain well logs for a study of groundwater sustainability and contamination on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley funded by the National Science Foundation.

“I don’t know of any state that makes these proprietary the way California does,” Fogg said. “I’ve been in California for 25 years. Before that, I worked 11 years in Texas.

“In Texas, the drillers’ log information is public. You would think that Texas – with a much more pro-business climate – would allow this stuff to be proprietary. But it’s never been that way. California, in that respect, is backward. You are operating with a hand tied behind your back,” Fogg said.

State officials say UC Davis does not meet the definition of a government agency, nor does the National Science Foundation, which is funded by the federal government.

“The law doesn’t include him,” said Paula Landis, a division chief with the Department of Water Resources, when asked about Fogg. “He has to ask somebody who fits within the definition of the law. The National Science Foundation doesn’t.”

For official eyes only

Water department spokeswoman Nancy Vogel said her agency takes its cue from the Legislature, which differentiates between which government agencies can access logs and which can’t.

“Most requests for well reports come from entities that are obvious government agencies, as defined by Government Code section 1150,” Vogel said by email. Examples include counties, cities, municipal corporations and water districts.

“But if a request comes to us from someone who does not fit that definition, we look to how that entity is treated by the Legislature,” she added. “The University of California, California State University and community colleges are not defined as governmental agencies by the Legislature for most purposes. So DWR does not define them as governmental agencies, either.

“The Legislature could change the law to say universities are governmental entities … and we’d turn over the data to university researchers,” Vogel added. “It would be simple for us.”

Even researchers who do obtain logs by going through a state-approved agency face restrictions. They must sign a release agreement promising that “information obtained from these reports shall be kept confidential and shall not be disseminated, published or made available for inspection by the public. Copies shall be stamped CONFIDENTIAL and shall be kept in a restricted file accessible only to agency staff or the authorized agent.”

For nongovernment scientists, access is so restricted that most don’t try. That means questions about where and how groundwater is polluted and how much can be pumped without depleting water supplies often go unanswered.

“Right now, we have communities whose wells have gone dry, completely. They are literally living out of water in buckets for their basic bathing needs,” said Firestone, co-director of the Community Water Center, which works in the southern San Joaquin Valley.

Is agricultural pumping causing the problem? Well logs could provide a clue by showing where wells are located – but the Community Water Center can’t access them. “Knowing where wells exist seems fundamental to being able to manage groundwater,” Firestone said.

Data on logs also show at what depth wells are perforated to tap into groundwater – a detail that can help reveal how agricultural chemicals, such as nitrates and pesticides, flow from one part of an aquifer system to another.

“It’s a really important thing to know,” Firestone said. “We can’t access any of that information because well completion reports are confidential.

“In California, we are a center of innovation. We’ve done incredible water management and engineering feats – and yet we are living in the Dark Ages with access to basic data,” she said.

Petersen, vice president of the Groundwater Resources Association, echoed those concerns: “Why are we so worried about the sharing of well log information when it affects our ability to manage an incredibly huge water resource in the state?” he said.

“I am always bumping up against trying to understand subsurface conditions with limited information,” Petersen added. “There is such a need for improved management of groundwater in the state. We need to have our hands on this basic information.”

Last year, even the California Department of Water Resources joined the ranks of those calling for transparency.

The agency spelled out its position in a comprehensive draft management blueprint called the California Water Plan, 2013 Update. In a chapter titled “Roadmap for Action,” the department called on policymakers to “make publicly available existing Well Completion Reports to allow improved analysis of groundwater data.”

“You can definitely say DWR favors making the well logs public,” Vogel, the department spokeswoman, said in an email .

‘Bread off my table’

But in a state where groundwater is tied to property rights, and management of the resource plays out at local and regional levels, many remain wary of making the records public.

In some cases, that resistance comes from public water suppliers worried about the risk of sabotage by terrorists. “Although many other Western states are doing this, I am not of the mind that just because everyone else has a black eye, I should have one, too,” said Meg Catzen-Brown, a lobbyist for the Central Basin Water Association in Los Angeles County, at a 2011 Senate hearing.

“We are very concerned about the security implications of making these well logs available to the general public,” Catzen-Brown said.

Supporters note that more than 150 California public water suppliers – including the city of Davis and the Sacramento County Water Agency – already make such information public.

“You can do Google searches for urban water plans and they have city wells located in those plans,” said Vicki Kretsinger Grabert, principal hydrologist for Luhdorff & Scalmanini Consulting Engineers in Woodland. “You can find the information. It seems like a rationale that doesn’t hold much weight.”

Although opposition from well drillers has softened over the decades, many still worry about divulging data on logs to competitors. “We have records going back to the 1920s. On occasion, it gives us an advantage,” said Augie Guardino, general manager of Guardino Well Drilling in Morgan Hill. “I don’t want to hand that over freely to someone who might take bread off my table.”

Some of the stiffest opposition comes from the state’s farmers who have long tapped groundwater at will and view disclosure of well drilling data as a potential conduit for regulation or litigation.

“Folks are afraid, frankly, that as the general public goes out and looks at that well construction data, they start infringing upon and creating individual personal property risk,” said David Orth, general manager of the Kings River Conservation District, which promotes the efficient use of groundwater in the southern San Joaquin Valley.

“What’s to preclude somebody from suing somebody because they’ve concluded that well construction creates a contamination plume or impacts indirectly the water supply of a neighboring well or community?”

Orth said his district already helps groundwater researchers obtain well logs for a variety of studies. “The question is: What additional public interest is served if we let the public have access to those things?” he said.

But even in California’s agricultural heartland, where water tables are dropping as large swaths of land are converted to almond orchards and other water-intensive crops, many people want to know more about what’s happening to the aquifers under their feet.

That includes Mary and Gerald Vieira, a retired couple who have lived in rural Denair southeast of Modesto since the 1970s.

After their well went dry last year, they paid $14,000 to have a new one drilled. Now – as the drought intensifies and groundwater pumping in the region increases – they worry how long current reserves will last.

“I’m a lot more scared this year than I was last year,” said Gerald, 71. “I thought maybe we were going to have a place to pass onto our kids. I’m not so sure that is going to happen now.”

“Or even that they would want it,” said Mary, 68. “It’s such a can of worms.”

They keep the well completion report for their new well locked in a fireproof safe along with other important documents. But they are frustrated that data on the form are confidential under state law. “It doesn’t make sense,” Mary said. “Why are they compiling the information if they’re never going to do anything with it?

“They should be utilizing it to protect all of us,” she added. “What if they did that with cancer patients? They would never find a cure.”

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