Editorial: California needs overdraft protection for its dwindling groundwater supplies

California’s century-old groundwater problem no longer is underground and invisible.

Last Sunday’s report by The Bee’s Tom Knudson was an eye-opener.

Taking more water out of groundwater basins than goes in pits neighbor against neighbor in the San Joaquin Valley and in some coastal and Southern California areas. Farmers and residents see their wells going dry and, with land subsidence, some canals running backwards.

The situation now is so dire that even long-standing groundwater regulation skeptics have come to the table.

For the first time the governor, legislators, farmers, water districts, environmentalists and others are speaking the same language. All agree that California has to better manage groundwater resources, that we have to control pumping and levy fees to finance replenishment – and that if the locals won’t do it the state should step in.

California is the only state in the western United States that does not govern its groundwater at the state level. We have a patchwork of local and regional management – and nonmanagement – of groundwater.

Some parts of the state do better than others. Most urban areas manage their groundwater wisely, but in the Central Valley there is very little restriction on pumping.

Orange County has had a groundwater basin district since 1933, after court action and a special act of the Legislature, and the power to impose pumping taxes since 1953 to finance replenishment of the groundwater basin. That water district has maintained the groundwater basin at safe levels. That model should expand statewide.

When Jerry Brown was governor during the dry years of 1976-77, he convened a governor’s commission which recommended in 1978 that local entities be required to develop groundwater management programs, and if they failed to do so the state would step in. The idea went nowhere.

The game-changer today is that the Association of California Water Agencies, with 440 water agencies accounting for 90 percent of water deliveries to cities, farms and businesses in California, last Monday put forward a set of recommendations that largely echo those of 1978.

Brown’s proposed budget includes funds to add 10 State Water Resource Control Board staff members to act when local or regional agencies are “unable or unwilling to sustainably manage groundwater basins.” Their task would be to “protect groundwater basins at risk of permanent damage until local or regional agencies are able to do so.”

In 2009, lawmakers passed a water package that included some monitoring of groundwater; the state now has water elevation levels on many of the state’s 515 groundwater basins. But that’s not the same as reporting on actual pumping from individual groundwater wells, which is needed to manage any groundwater basin. In the 1950s, the Legislature required pumpers in four Southern California counties to report the locations of wells and the amount of water pumped from each of them. Legislators should extend that requirement to the whole state, no exceptions, and require release of the information to the state.

With a short three-and-a-half months left in the legislative session and bill deadlines at the end of the month, Sen. Fran Pavley of Agoura Hills and Assemblyman Roger Dickinson of Sacramento have introduced placeholder groundwater bills. Dickinson’s bill incorporates ACWA’s recommendations, though details of a “state backstop” remain to be worked out. The state water board is hosting a public workshop to work out legislative details on Wednesday.

Legislation also should deal with a major cause of the alarming drop in groundwater levels: A big expansion in new land coming under irrigation for permanent crops, such as almond trees. In the eight-county San Joaquin Valley, fruit and nut crops increased by 386,000 acres and field crops increased by 72,000 acres between 2007 and 2012, according to Jeff Michael at the University of the Pacific. Vegetable crops decreased by 72,000 acres.

This is unsustainable, seriously overdrafting groundwater. As Michael points out, many people were questioning the sustainability of more than 5.4 million irrigated acres in the San Joaquin Valley in 2007 before the additional 386,000 acres were brought into production.

Both he and Sargeant Green of Fresno State’s California Water Institute have suggested that those seeking to change open land to irrigated should be required to get conditional land-use permits, showing that groundwater extraction rates would not adversely impact others. They’re right.

In 1978, Brown said that just as we shouldn’t overdraft our bank accounts, we ought not overdraft our groundwater basins. Thirty-six years later, California needs to get serious about regulating groundwater.