California Forum

Opposing sides in California water wars forced together in groundwater agencies

The intent of the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act is to end nearly a century of over-pumping that caused thousands of wells to dry up and contributed to damaging subsidence.
The intent of the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act is to end nearly a century of over-pumping that caused thousands of wells to dry up and contributed to damaging subsidence. The Modesto Bee file

To understand politics in California, look down in an irrigation ditch, and where you see water, see gold.

– George Ballis, the late Fresno activist director of National Land for People

With all the downpours and flooding across California this winter, it might seem that the pressure to begin managing the state’s precious groundwater supply would ease up a bit.

Instead, the state is pushing to quicken the pace of implementing groundwater regulations.

“To protect critical water infrastructure, we need to think about what we can do at a faster pace” than the long-term deadlines now in groundwater law, said Jeanine Jones, a Department of Water Resources manager, citing new aerial images pinpointing severe over-pumping.

At the same time, the process of forming local agencies to manage groundwater basins is fueling anxiety among farmers and environmentalists alike.

For all, there is uncertainty – in part because state law now requires all users to work together for the first time on the groundwater issue when many may have been on opposing sides in previous water disputes. Some view these new agencies as an opportunity for disadvantaged communities and small farmers to have a voice in decision-making; others worry that the agencies will be dominated by the same powerful agriculture interests that have held sway in the state for so long.

Currently, the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act of 2014 requires local agencies to submit a plan by 2020 or 2022, depending on the severity of a region’s problem, and to achieve sustainable management within the next 20 years. The intent is to end nearly a century of over-pumping that caused thousands of wells to dry up and contributed to damaging subsidence. That sinking ground made necessary $100 million in repairs to the state and federal water projects that distribute water to millions of people and millions of acres of farmland.

Whether the law’s goal – to facilitate a more uniform and sustainable groundwater approach without over-pumping – is achieved is a matter of enormous importance for all Californians, many of whom rarely think beyond their own faucets when it comes to water: Groundwater accounts for about 60 percent of the state’s supply in drought years and about 40 percent in average years. This is in a state with 39 million people and farmland so rich that it produces a quarter of the nation’s food.

Some critics complain that the groundwater overdraft problem is so great that the state should be moving much more rapidly to curb pumping – particularly in areas hardest hit by subsidence. State officials say the problem is almost a century old, and the new law represents a major shift in how water is managed – one requiring years to deal with the complexities involved.

Recently the critics got some powerful ammunition for their argument when NASA released highly detailed, aerial images of the San Joaquin Valley and other areas most walloped by the over-draft of groundwater. The pictures showed that the rate of subsidence in some spots exceeded the rate anticipated by experts.

In crucial over-draft areas “you can either limit construction of new wells next to critical infrastructure or you can control pumping there,” DWR’s Jones told me. Local agencies formed under the groundwater management law “are going to have to take a hard look at their land use and what is supportable.”

One of DWR’s big concerns is the damage that subsidence is doing to its canals and flood control infrastructure. After the local agencies are formed in areas of critical over-draft, Jones said DWR will ask them how they plan to cope with the problem.

One area is near the Kings County town of Avenal, where subsidence has damaged the State Water Project canal so much that it will cut how much water can be sent south when water flows are high.

While DWR is tracking subsidence rates, farmers and other local interests are meeting to comply with one of the first deadlines mandated by the groundwater management act.

All 127 water basins designated by the state have until June 30 to create local agencies that will draft their plans for sustainability. “If no local agency is formed in an area or agencies fail to comply with the law, the basin is referred to the State Water Resources Control Board for follow-up action,” Jones said.

So far, that local agency creation process has been a bit bumpy.

“There is a concern from all the stakeholders about how they may be affected,” the water board’s Sam Boland-Brien told me. “Farmers are voicing the same concerns as the environmental justice groups representing small, disadvantaged communities. All interests – from large municipalities to individual landowners – want their needs taken into account.”

Boland-Brien, who oversees the water board’s enforcement of the groundwater law, added, “Ultimately, successful implementation of the plans will be dependent on the active engagement of all the groundwater users.”

Danny Merkley, lobbyist for the California Farm Bureau, which opposed the law, said since its passage DWR “has done a phenomenal job listening to all the stakeholders and working to move forward with agricultural and environmental interests in the same room.”

Merkley, a fourth-generation farmer in the Sacramento Valley, said the farmers he represents “want their concerns heard because they have to rely on groundwater as their savings account – especially when their deliveries from the state and federal water projects are cut back. Many of these farmers come from families who have worked their land for generations.”

Some environmental justice organizations worry that DWR may prove to be incapable of making tough regulatory calls when a local agency’s makeup isn’t inclusive enough or if a plan falls short of sustainability goals.

The groundwater management law “is a huge opportunity and also a very huge threat,” said Kristin Dobbin, a coordinator for the Visalia-based Community Water Center, which works with 30 small communities in Fresno, Kern, Kings and Tulare counties.

“It’s certainly a huge opportunity for small, disadvantaged communities and small farmers to come together and demand a place at the table” of these newly created local agencies where groundwater decisions will be made, she told me. “But I also think there’s a possibility of institutionalizing the same inequitable system that has ruled unofficially for the last century where the more powerful players monopolize the groundwater.”

Jennifer Clary of Clean Water Action California says the need for community involvement in the local agency formation process is often being ignored “and by ignoring that, we are left with the same parties who got us into this overdraft problem in the first place.”

Roberta Jaffe, who owns a small winery with her husband in northern Santa Barbara County, praises DWR for helping her on issues related to the law. But she said her efforts to be part of her area’s formation of a local agency have been rebuffed by local officials. “On the local level, elected officials and people in power are somewhat beholden to agribusiness,” she told me, “and you have to look at the tremendous power agribusiness has had for a long time.

“We are having to fight to have our voices heard,” Jaffe told me. “For this law to be successful, there has to be a power structure and cultural change in how we look at water in California. We have to have a stewardship of water for a sustainable future.”

It would be naive, of course, to expect that this groundwater statute might upend the current world of water in California, where the most powerful interests carry the biggest clout, but it can be hoped that the law will be a vehicle that gives all stakeholders – including the small ones – a real voice in decisions.

Susan Sward is a freelance writer in San Francisco. She can be contacted at