Groundwater rules will force change

A landmark trio of bills passed by the state Legislature and signed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown on Tuesday promise to change the way California manages groundwater.

The nation’s largest food producer (with some 300 different crops) and the only state in the union with no significant groundwater regulation, California has long embraced a freewheeling, hands-off attitude toward groundwater development. With few exceptions, almost anyone can dig a well and extract as much water as they want, regardless of the impact on over-drafted aquifers or neighboring wells.

As a result, California has become dependent on groundwater for 40 to 60 percent of its water supply, depending on the amount of annual rainfall and Sierra snowpack.

In some parts of the Central Valley, the impact of mining so much groundwater has been land subsidence of up to 30 feet. And during the current drought, many growers have been desperately sinking new, deeper wells to extract even more water, especially for tree crops like almonds and pistachios.

The legislation, which takes effect Jan. 1, will mandate the creation of “groundwater sustainability agencies” charged with the responsibility of developing groundwater basin management plans. Those plans will, presumably, call for monitoring of well records to track the volume of water pumped from each aquifer and to determine a sustainable level of extraction.

Given that 80 percent of California’s developed water is used by agriculture, and that there may be as many as 50,000 affected landowners in the Central Valley, with even more wells, the impact of the new laws promises to be significant.

For one thing, many of those wells lack meters and retrofitting them will be an expensive process. But meters will be essential for monitoring, and monitoring will be at the heart of the process, as each sustainability agency seeks to track usage and match consumption of groundwater with sustainable limits.

Some observers have suggested that the process will give rise to far more sophisticated computer models that will govern both surface and groundwater supplies and uses with greater efficiency. But the centuries-long practice of taking as much water out of the ground as a landowner can afford to pump is likely going to come to a gradual end.

It will be five or six years before the first deadline for creation of sustainability agencies arrives, and the new legislation allows until 2040 for agencies to reach their sustainability goals.

Some water experts fear that by then it will be too late to protect the water still left in the ground.

Richard Frank, an influential professor of environmental law at UC Davis, told the Sacramento Bee, “By the time this process cranks up in five, 10 or 20 years, the damage may long have been done.”

Frank also worries that a loophole in the legislation will allow well owners to refuse disclosure of personal information on groundwater extraction reports. “I think it’s a problem,” he said. “That effort at confidentiality would seem to have the potential to undermine the whole purpose and utility of this groundwater extraction data.”

Whether that will happen or not remains unclear as experts wade through the details of three complicated bills.

Ann DuBay, a spokesperson for the Sonoma County Water Agency, described the legislation as “very complex” and said the Water Agency will prepare a report about it for the Board of Supervisors sometime in “early winter.”

The county, she said, becomes the default sustainability agency, until bodies are formed for individual groundwater basins. In Sonoma County, she said, the three identified basins “of medium priority” as defined by the legislation, are the Sonoma Valley, Petaluma Valley and the Santa Rosa Plain.

Because the Sonoma Valley already has a voluntary Groundwater Basin Management Plan, the first in the state, and a plan is under development for the Santa Rosa Plain, Sonoma County will have a head start on the process.

“It’s great,” she said, “people know each other, there’s a level of trust and understanding.”

Well monitoring in the Sonoma Valley has been voluntary, but those involved describe it as effective. DuBay said she isn’t sure how monitoring will be handled under the new plan, saying “it’s too early to comment” on how groundwater users will respond.

She also said the lead time provided in the legislation “will give people time to figure out what works best. And I think the really important point is that (the legislation) does really provide for local control of groundwater, not bringing in a water master from the state.”

Of importance to environmental groups is the fact that the new rules will force groundwater managers to look at the interrelationship between subsurface water and adjacent rivers and streams. In Sonoma Valley, for instance, there is a widespread belief that the level of groundwater pumped to irrigate vineyards has reduced stream flow in Sonoma Creek and its tributaries.

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