Editorials: Managing groundwater would protect this vital resource

Groundwater is a key component to California’s complicated water system, and the Legislature needs to act to manage and protect this vital resource.

In the quest for water during a drought of historic proportions, water districts and farmers are drilling more wells and pumping record amounts of groundwater.

Wells are going dry, land is subsiding, and roads and aqueducts are damaged as a result.

In a normal year, a third of the water we use is pumped from the ground. In most droughts, that amount rises to about half. This year, with allocations of water severely cut, groundwater may account for as much as 65 percent of the water we consume.

Yet there is very little oversight of how we use groundwater. There are no requirements to keep track of it, no limitations on how much water can be pumped out of the ground, and no safeguards from depleting this resource. There are few plans to replenish water basins that are overly tapped.

Feel free to shake your head in disbelief. But California is the only state that does not have a statewide system to manage its groundwater, which provides a critical buffer for farmers during drought and is essential to California’s $45 billion agriculture industry.

As lawmakers return this week, they will consider legislation that would establish a framework to protect and manage groundwater through local agencies, while respecting property and water rights.

Senate Bill 1168 by Sen. Fran Pavley, D-Agoura Hills, and Assembly Bill 1739 by Assemblyman Roger Dickinson, D-Sacramento, would provide a broad assessment of the more than 400 water basins, and authorize water agencies and districts to adopt sustainable management plans.

Under the legislation, local agencies would have to create and approve the plans through a stakeholder process. Officials who oversee about 125 water basins representing about 90 percent of all groundwater pumping would need to develop a sustainability plan by 2020, and update them every five years.

Local districts and agencies would gain clear authority to monitor groundwater levels, quality, land subsidence and changes in the flow of nearby rivers and streams.

They could require people who pump groundwater to report the amounts extracted and where new wells are being drilled. Districts would be able limit exports and the amount of water pumped. They also could levy fees for management and to help replenish these underground systems of storage. These are sensible and long past-due steps.

The issue of managing groundwater has been overshadowed by the debate over a multibillion-dollar water bond, Delta restoration and new dams and reservoirs. While lawmakers have wavered on putting the water bond before voters since 2009, dealing with depleted groundwater supply cannot wait.

In the late 1970s then-Gov. Jerry Brown commissioned a review of water rights in California. One of the main conclusions of the 1978 report was the need to modernize the state’s approach to groundwater.

The report noted that in 1961-62, an Assembly interim committee on water stated that groundwater problems in the San Joaquin Valley “will probably become worse and in a few instances become critical.”

This year, the governor called on Californians to reduce water use by 20 percent. Water agencies have been authorized to levy $500 fines for those who obviously waste water. But people with wells can pump as much as they want.

We all know the right to water is worth a good fight in California. But common sense needs to be applied, too. The Legislature and the governor cannot wait any longer.