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California poised to restrict groundwater pumping

For as long as California has been a state, groundwater has remained its most exclusively private natural resource. Property owners, in many cases, can drill a well and extract all the water they want, without so much as a friendly wave to neighbors or any government agency.

California is the only state in America so completely lacking in groundwater regulation. The effects have been contentious in this drought year: Aquifers statewide are being rapidly depleted, according to available data, in some cases causing vast swaths of the overlying land to collapse and causing millions of dollars in damage to surface infrastructure, such as roads and canals.

All this may swiftly change, pending the governor’s signature.

On Aug. 29, the Legislature passed a package of bills that impose sweeping new regulations on groundwater extraction. If signed by Gov. Jerry Brown, the laws would create new local agencies with broad powers to restrict groundwater pumping, shut down harmful wells and impose fines and criminal penalties for failing to allow inspections.

Existing state agencies, including the Department of Water Resources and State Water Resources Control Board, would be granted new powers to oversee these local agencies and take over their programs, if deemed inadequate.

The overarching goal, according to the legislation, is to ensure California’s groundwater is managed sustainably, generally defined as avoiding “chronic lowering” of aquifer levels.

It is not a small issue: Groundwater makes up about 60 percent of all fresh water consumed in California during drought years, and about 40 percent in average years.

“In terms of the culture of water management in California, it’s a major cultural shift,” said Graham Fogg, a UC Davis professor of hydrogeology and groundwater expert. “I’ve worked at UC Davis for almost 26 years, and I never thought in my lifetime I would see this in California, frankly. But it has been sorely needed.”

Dozens of agricultural groups opposed the legislation, saying it would add burdensome regulation and cost, and potentially undermine the economic health of farms. The laws are written to exempt small domestic well owners who pump less than 2 acre-feet of water per year. But thousands of larger extractors will fall under the new regulations.

Among the opponents is the Northern California Water Association, a group that represents property owners, water agencies and farmers in the Sacramento Valley. The group’s president and CEO, David Guy, said there are probably 50,000 landowners in the Central Valley alone who would be affected by the new laws.

Under the legislation, each of these landowners eventually would come under the jurisdiction of a new local “groundwater sustainability agency.” These agencies would prepare a groundwater plan, which, for the first time, will set rules on when and how much water each well owner can pump. The local agency could be a county government or a new entity formed by residents specifically to comply with the law.

If no local agency emerges, the state would prepare a groundwater plan for the area.

Either way, in basic terms, the government would be telling farmers how to operate their wells.

“You just start thinking about it, and the magnitude of this is pretty large,” said Guy. “In certain parts of the state, there’s probably going to be some major sea changes as part of this.”

For example, many wells, because they have never been regulated, lack flow meters to measure how much water is extracted. Local groundwater agencies are likely to require well owners to install flow meters as a first step to understand the demand on aquifers. An agricultural flow meter can cost several thousand dollars to buy and install, and many farms have several wells. There are ongoing costs involved in collecting data from these meters.

Local agencies would be empowered to impose fees on well owners to cover the costs of preparing a sustainability plan, monitoring pumping and carrying out enforcement. The agencies could undertake long-term water management activities. For example, they would be able to buy water to recharge aquifers and buy land to construct lakes or settling basins where that water could be pooled to soak into the ground.

In addition, the agencies would be charged with protecting the quality of groundwater and have the ability to take actions to prevent pollution.

“The unanswered question is going to be the cost,” said Guy. “I think there’s going to be some significant expenses that might go into developing some of these plans.”

The legislation empowers local agencies to enter private land to inspect wells and pumps within their jurisdiction through a court-issued inspection warrant. Failure to heed such a warrant would be considered a misdemeanor crime.

In most cases, Fogg said, local agencies are likely to develop complex computer models to monitor their aquifers. These would be used to help predict how changes in pumping, land use and other factors affect groundwater levels. In many areas, significant research would be required before aquifers are well understood.

“In most cases, there is an ongoing need for improving the understanding of the groundwater hydrology in these basins,” said Fogg. “They’ll have to determine what the future sustainable yield is so that these basins don’t drift into an unsustainable condition. It’s a problem that unfolds on a time scale of decades or centuries.”

The new laws require local agencies to address the interaction between groundwater basins and creeks and rivers in the vicinity, a connection long neglected in California water management. For example, a local agency could decide that “sustainable” groundwater management includes depleting surface water to some degree. Whether that would pass muster with state officials, and with wildlife agencies, remains to be seen.

The Department of Water Resources and State Water Resources Control Board, if the laws are enacted, would ramp up new programs to oversee local groundwater agencies. The bills require them to periodically review the sustainability plans. If a plan is found to be inadequate, the water board can take over groundwater management in a local area after holding hearings.

Local agencies would have five to seven years to submit a groundwater plan. DWR would have two years to conduct an initial plan review and must review the plans again every five years. In each case, it could recommend corrective actions. Each local agency would have 20 years to achieve the sustainability goals in its plan.

Richard Frank, a professor of environmental law at UC Davis, said these time frames are too long.

“By the time this process cranks up in five, 10 or 20 years, the damage may long have been done,” said Frank.

He also is concerned about a clause in the legislation that forbids public disclosure of personal information in reports on groundwater extraction. The clause cites a section of the Public Records Act that prohibits disclosure of information about utility customers, including name, address and “utility usage data.” If this is applied broadly in the case of groundwater, researchers and the public would not be able to access information about the location of wells and the rate of groundwater extraction.

This is a level of privacy not extended to Californians who hold rights to divert surface water from streams. The annual reports they file with the state are posted on the Internet in undiluted form and are readily available to the public.

“I think it’s a problem,” Frank said. “That effort at confidentiality would seem to have the potential to undermine the whole purpose and utility of this groundwater extraction data.”

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