Editorials

California needs action now on groundwater protection

Legislation that would have had local government agencies create a process for issuing permits to drill groundwater wells was pulled in the Water, Parks and Wildlife Committee this week.
Legislation that would have had local government agencies create a process for issuing permits to drill groundwater wells was pulled in the Water, Parks and Wildlife Committee this week. Sacramento Bee file

As if California’s water supplies weren’t already sufficiently imperiled, a bill that would have taken a small step toward groundwater regulation unfortunately has now stalled.

Sen. Lois Wolk’s Senate Bill 1317 would have slowed the speed at which new wells are drilled, and denied permits for wells in critically overdrafted basins until groundwater regulations begin to take effect in 2022. But it ran into opposition from agricultural interests and local government agencies.

Water agencies and farmers should recognize the urgent need to better manage the overuse of this precious resource. Groundwater is a major source of potable water for homes and critical to California’s $54 billion agriculture production.

Prolonged drought has spurred a scramble to drill new groundwater wells. The results have ravaged the Central Valley and pitted neighbor against neighbor.

In some parts of the Valley, land has subsided at an alarming rate due to overpumping. A NASA study found an area near Corcoran that sank 13 inches in eight months. Rural residents have lost drinking water to deeper wells sunk by neighbors in shared aquifers.

Wolk sought to require cities and counties to create a process for issuing drilling permits and to prove that new wells would not cause an “undesirable result,” such as subsidence, saltwater intrusion or an unreasonable lowering of groundwater levels. The law was to take effect on Jan. 1, 2018, and end in 2022, or once a county established a plan to sustain its groundwater.

Why wait six more years? As it is, sustainable groundwater management is proceeding at a snail’s pace. California is the last state in the West to regulate groundwater; the Legislature passed the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act in 2014. But the law forces local agencies only to create plans for sustainably managing groundwater by 2022. Achieving sustainability isn’t required until 2042.

Damage already has occurred to California’s aquifers from overuse. If the state doesn’t get a handle on drilling in basins already strained by drought and overpumping, irrevocable damage could happen in the next 20 years before sustainability plans take effect.

Groups that opposed SB 1317 – the Delta Coalition, the League of California Cities, the California State Association of Counties and others – should consider the long-term harm being done to this valuable resource. Californians should be working toward sustainably managing groundwater. The sooner it is accomplished, the better for everyone.

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