Commentary: Groundwater Legislation: “One Size Fits All” Just Doesn’t Fit

By Sen. Tom Berryhill; Ag Alert

In the waning hours of the legislative session, three bills that will drastically alter California’s groundwater management were passed with little vetting by the public or stakeholders impacted by the proposed changes. Senate Bill 1168 and Assembly Bill 1739 had been making their way through the legislative process, but in a completely different form than what was presented in the final days of the legislative session. Senate Bill 1319 was added to the package with just hours to go and voila, the legislative leadership declares a negotiated groundwater management package that works for all of California.

Far from it. “Negotiated” implies people of opposing viewpoints had input, something that did not happen.

Almost universally, agriculture was opposed, and I would imagine had it not been “negotiated” behind closed doors, there would have been an outcry from other regions and stakeholders throughout the state as well. Make no mistake, these groundwater bills will radically change decades of California water policy and give unprecedented authority to the state’s water bureaucracy to declare winners and losers. All without an appeals process. This is no way to craft policy.

Legislators of both political parties immediately sent a joint letter to Gov. Jerry Brown requesting that he veto the bills and call a special session of the Legislature to develop a reasonable groundwater management plan.

Earlier this summer, the Legislature put together groundbreaking water bond legislation. We did it in the light of day with months of negotiations and years of work behind the policy changes. These negotiations were a true victory for the people of California and a shining example of how well we can do something when we work together.

As a farmer and a Californian, I am absolutely concerned about increasing conditions of overdraft in many groundwater basins and the long-term effects on access to groundwater and land. But I believe California is playing a dangerous game if it pursues the one-size-fits-all approach of these bills.

Add into the mix a devastating drought that has severely tested our ability to prioritize where dwindling supplies of water should go—agriculture, environment or homes—and any solution becomes murkier.

Some basins have been critically overdrafted for decades, and in those instances state oversight may be an appropriate option as a way to spur local-management improvements. However, other basins have little or no overdraft problems or already have effective management systems in place. These bills treat all scenarios the same, a de facto punishment of the basins doing it right.

What started earlier this year as a legislative effort to remedy overdraft of aquifers in specific areas of the state morphed into a policy package that addresses issues well beyond mitigation of overdraft, all done at the last minute, without policy hearings, in the final weeks of the legislative session.

The regulatory regime for groundwater extraction enacted in these bills will not only invite lawsuits, it turns a blind eye to the differences between the 500-plus water basins in California and ignores ongoing local overdraft mitigation efforts. This is a bureaucratic power grab by the state’s water agencies, not an honest solution to a problem.

It took us more than 10 years to craft a good water bond that addresses the needs of a variety of communities, interest groups and industries. Was three weeks enough time to fully consider and seek consensus on the numerous, substantial policy changes made to groundwater management? I think not.

In the coming years and decades, the authorities granted in this bill will radically change the landscape of groundwater management. That will have a de-stabilizing impact on those who depend on groundwater supplies, particularly in Northern and Central California, thus the virtually unanimous opposition of the agriculture community to these proposals.

Yes, it is time to craft groundwater regulation that meets today’s needs, but these bills won’t get us there. Let’s go back to the drawing board and craft a narrower, more effective measure focused on basins where real problems exist, encouraging them to implement management measures modeled by other regions and providing a mechanism for the state to partner with areas when local management fails. We came together and passed the water bond; we can, and should, do the same for groundwater management.

Understanding California’s Groundwater

California’s Groundwater Is in Crisis

Source: Janny Choy and Geoff McGhee; Water in the West

 

California’s groundwater is back in the spotlight. Largely invisible, lightly regulated and used by 85% of California’s population and much of the state’s $45 billion agriculture industry, groundwater is a crucial reserve that helps stave off catastrophe during drought periods like we’ve experienced over the past three years.

Unheralded, Underegulated and Overused, California’s Groundwater Is in Crisis

California's groundwater managementBut after more than a century of unregulated use, California’s groundwater is in crisis – and with it the state’s hydrologic safety net. This carries profound economic, environmental, and infrastructure implications. How did it come to this, and what do we do now?

6 Million Californians Rely on Groundwater

Over 6 million Californians rely solely or primarily on groundwater for their water supply. Many of them reside in towns and cities in the Central Valley and along the Central California coast, where communities generally have limited local surface water options or don’t have the ability to finance other water supply sources.

For Others, Groundwater Complements the Surface Water Supply

Generally, though, groundwater is used alongside surface water to meet the state’s needs, which range from urban and industrial uses to irrigating roughly half the fruits and vegetables grown in the United States.

In normal and wet years, groundwater provides 30 to 40% of the water supply. It supplements surface water that is collected from snowmelt and rainfall then is stored and conveyed by a vast system of state and federal dams, reservoirs, and aqueducts.

During droughts, surface water availability can be sharply reduced, leaving water users to pump water from local wells. At times like these, groundwater can surge closer to 60% of water used statewide, and even higher in agricultural areas like the Central Valley.

When Rain and Snow Don’t Fall, Groundwater Prevents Disaster

This year, the third consecutive year of an extreme and extensive drought, state officials have warned that little or no surface water will be made available to most consumers. In turn, water providers are advising large users to pump their own groundwater.

As bad as this drought is, it is not uncommon. Droughts are a part of life in California, as anyone who has lived here long enough knows. But what most may not know is that groundwater has been getting us through droughts, including the last big one in the 1970s, and it is getting us through the one today.

In fact, 5 million acre feet of additional groundwater will be pumped in the Central Valley alone to make up for the 6.5 million acre feet in surface water reductions for agriculture in 2014. Even so, the economic loss for the Central Valley from this drought is expected to be $1.7 billion.

By Overusing Groundwater Today, We Are Living Off Our ‘Savings’

Writers often turn to financial metaphors to explain the importance of groundwater. As Tom Philpott of Mother Jones magazine wrote recently, “To live off surface water is to live off your paycheck … To rely on groundwater, though, is to live off of savings.”

Another metaphor frequently applied to groundwater is that of mining. In fact, “groundwater mining” is exactly what experts call nonrenewable groundwater use, where farmers “mine” water to grow almonds, alfalfa or grapes. You could even say they are “mining” those commodities themselves.

Recommendations for Groundwater Reform 

Through numerous hearings, workshops, and consultations with experts and interest groups, recommendations by groups such as the California Water Foundation are coalescing around the concept of local groundwater management with the state serving as a backstop authority if local action has not occurred or is insufficient.

Next steps might include creating and empowering local groundwater management entities; requiring groundwater management plans; and defining the state’s role for assistance, oversight, enforcement and funding. Read more in the California Water Foundation’s report with recommendations for sustainable groundwater management.

For Groundwater, Local Management Proves Effective

Effective Local Groundwater Management

By Christine Souza; Ag Alert

As the state Legislature considers statewide groundwater legislation in the midst of a severe drought, water agencies and water users say local groundwater management has yielded sustainable and positive results.

“Recent discussions may have left people with the impression that California has no groundwater management, but dozens of local and regional plans are in place and work well,” said Danny Merkley, California Farm Bureau Federation director of water resources.

Current law enables local entities or agencies to implement their own groundwater basin management solutions and strategies. Local management falls into three main categories: special act districts, created through an act of legislation; county groundwater ordinances adopted by local agencies; and court adjudications, where groundwater rights are determined by a court.

Tim O’Halloran, general manager for the district, said its data collection efforts give well owners “a snapshot twice a year of how their groundwater is doing, a trend over time,” which allows development of sophisticated, conjunctive water programs that assure sustainable groundwater use.

Effective groundwater management comes from working through the issues collaboratively and locally, he said.

“If an outsider comes in and takes the data, by the time it is processed, it may or may not make sense and they won’t have the context to evaluate the data,” O’Halloran said.

Another special act district, the Sierra Valley Groundwater Management District, was established in 1980 after irrigators became concerned about increased drilling of new wells.

Jim Roberti, a director of the Sierraville-based district, said the district was established to prevent export of water.

“The major goal of the forming of the district has been achieved and the water has been allowed to stay in the valley for the people that live here,” he said.

Roberti said landowners are required to purchase a meter for any wells with a flow rate of more than 100 gallons per minute. The district owns and maintains the meters, with data collected monthly.

Management of aquifers is also achieved through the use of local groundwater ordinances adopted by local agencies.

The Butte County Department of Water and Resource Conservation was formed in 1999.

“Butte County started this county water and natural resource department because there were transfers taking place and the residents felt there should be a little more oversight, so the county passed an initiative that restricts transferring surface water and pumping groundwater,” said Les Heringer, farm manager at M&T Ranch in Chico. “Since the county started this, it has functioned very well.”

Paul Gosselin, the director of the county department, said Butte County has more than one ordinance that guides groundwater, such as a groundwater management plan and a well-spacing ordinance to ensure that agricultural wells do not interfere with each other.

“It is pretty complex with groundwater flows, surface water flows and the interaction with surface and groundwater, and then how much land use affects either surface-water use or groundwater use,” Gosselin said.

Butte County has a network of wells that are monitored quarterly, plus additional wells dedicated for groundwater monitoring, with data reported publicly. Landowner volunteers are asked to assist with groundwater monitoring.

“We’ve had extraordinary involvement and public participation and willingness by landowners to do monitoring and help study the basin,” Gosselin said. “The people at the local level did this from the grassroots up because of their understanding and appreciation of the importance of groundwater and what that means for the community, agriculture and the environment.”

A third form of groundwater management is through court adjudication, in which groundwater rights are determined by a court, including how much groundwater well owners can extract and who serves as watermaster to ensure the basin is managed.

John Martin, general manager of the Tehachapi-Cummings County Water District in Tehachapi, said the district has three adjudicated basins.

“Because of the fact that the groundwater is limited and the safe yield is very small, we have an informal arrangement with the farmers that they don’t take more than half of their total water needs from the ground and that they get at least half from our (surface) water supply,” Martin said. “They have been complying with that for quite a number of years and by doing that, the basin is staying well below the court-determined safe yield.”

The Tehachapi-Cummings district, which acts as the court-appointed watermaster, meters agricultural wells that take monthly readings and groundwater elevations, and people are notified when the supply is getting out of balance.

Merkley said Farm Bureau and other agricultural organizations have been urging the Legislature to move deliberately in considering statewide groundwater legislation. He noted that some groundwater basins face supply-demand challenges, but that examples of successful local programs could “provide a path for others to follow” in coming years.

“The complexities of groundwater, groundwater management and interactions with surface water are simply too great to rush to complete an isolated solution,” he said. “We recommend a carefully thought-through process to develop appropriate protections of our groundwater resources for future generations.”

Butte County farmer Heringer put it this way: “One size does not fit all in this state regarding groundwater. Every groundwater basin is different in the state, so local oversight is much better than having somebody from the state come in and tell us how to manage it.”

Report Highlights Urgent Need to Address California’s Groundwater Management

Management of California’s groundwater basins is fragmented, and many groundwater management plans are outdated and lacking important details, leaving significant room for improvement, according to a report released today by the California Water Foundation (CWF).

The report, An Evaluation of California Groundwater Management Planning, assesses the current condition of groundwater management planning in the state and makes recommendations to support sustainable management.

Lester Snow, Executive Director, California Water Foundation
Lester Snow, Executive Director, California Water Foundation

“California’s limited approach to groundwater management has been a concern for a long time, but the drought has drawn renewed attention to this increasing problem,” said Lester Snow, executive director of CWF. “Developing effective plans for how we manage this valuable resource is a crucial step to ensure that California’s farms, cities, and environment have reliable water supplies today and in the future.”

Groundwater is a critical part of California’s water supply, used to meet approximately 40 percent of the state’s water demands in an average year and up to 60 percent or more during droughts. In some regions, groundwater provides 100 percent of the local water supply. Yet, California is the only state without comprehensive statewide groundwater management programs.

The report released today reviewed 120 groundwater management plans adopted by local water agencies to manage their groundwater basins and concludes that current state groundwater management laws are inadequate. While many districts are effectively managing their groundwater resources, the report found significant limitations to the overall quality of groundwater plans in all parts of the state. Many plans lack basic basin management objectives or an implementation strategy for ensuring that objectives will be met. Most of the plans did not include or describe stakeholder outreach and participation. Additionally, 28 percent of the plans examined were written in 2002 or earlier and have not been updated.

The report makes the following recommendations to advance the development and implementation of groundwater management plans:

  • Establish a statewide goal that groundwater plans must describe how they will achieve sustainability of each groundwater basin.
  • Organize and empower local groundwater agencies to manage groundwater sub-basins.
  • Require the development and enforcement of groundwater management plans by local groundwater agencies.
  • Provide local agencies with technical guidance and financial support from the state of California.
  • Empower the state of California to oversee program implementation.

The state’s growing groundwater overdraft problems have resulted in a number of adverse consequences, including saltwater intrusion, increased energy costs due to pumping from greater depths, environmental degradation, and land subsidence that results in costly damage to infrastructure.

In May, CWF released a report of findings and recommendations to achieve sustainable groundwater management in California. Learn more at: http://www.californiawaterfoundation.org.

An Evaluation of California Groundwater Management Planning was prepared for CWF by RMC Water and Environment. The California Water Foundation’s (CWF) vision is to sustainably meet the water needs of California’s farms, cities, and environment today and into the future. CWF supports innovative projects and policies and brings together experts, stakeholders, and the public to achieve 21st century solutions.

Photo Credit: CDFA

State Must Use Caution on Groundwater Management

By Danny Merkley; Ag Alert 

In the face of the California water crisis, many in the state Legislature appear to be rushing toward new groundwater management policy that could threaten certain property rights and the overlying groundwater rights of landowners.

Generally, legislation that has been introduced would require groundwater basins to be managed “sustainably” by local entities but would authorize the state government to step in if the local entities do not adopt management plans with certain components by a specified time.

Farm Bureau and other agricultural organizations continue to urge the Legislature to proceed with caution on the issue of groundwater management. Failure to take adequate time to address this complex issue could lead to huge, long-term impacts on farms and on state and local economies.

People’s livelihoods and jobs are definitely at stake. All involved in the effort to better manage groundwater need to focus on future ramifications of the various authorities and directives being considered.

Groundwater management is as diverse and complex as the 515 distinct basins and sub-basins in California. For that reason, Farm Bureau believes groundwater must be managed locally or regionally, while protecting overlying property rights. To their credit, most of the pending measures do provide for local management, but working out the details is certainly a challenge.

With members of the Legislature feel the need to do something about groundwater, Farm Bureau is working with other agricultural stakeholders and decision-makers to identify a path forward toward a reasonable and workable groundwater management system.

We have repeatedly stated that the reason we face groundwater challenges is not due to a lack of regulation, but because of lack of availability of surface water. It must be recognized that the state’s increased reliance on groundwater for growing food, fiber and other agricultural commodities has resulted not just from drought, but from restrictive environmental laws, court decisions, regulatory actions and “flashier” river systems, as watersheds receive rain instead of snow.

All of those factors have reduced availability of surface water—surface water that would help recharge groundwater basins and allow farmers to reduce their reliance on groundwater. Farm Bureau strongly believes groundwater recharge should be established as a beneficial use of water.

The reasonable and beneficial use of groundwater is a basic property right under California law. These rights must be recognized and respected under any groundwater-management framework. This does not mean that areas with significant overdraft issues should be ignored, but that in dealing with these areas, current groundwater rights must be protected.

It also needs to be recognized that restricting the use of groundwater has broad economic consequences for agricultural communities and the farm families, farmworkers and the related support, processing and supply enterprises in those communities. Drastic changes in groundwater policy will impact land values and the ability for farmers and ranchers to secure adequate financing, both for land acquisition and for operating expenses.

Appropriate protection of groundwater resources for future generations must be carefully thought out, not rushed through the legislative process to meet arbitrary deadlines. There’s no good time for hurried legislation, but during a critical drought year, when canals and ditches are dry and groundwater is the lifeline for farms, is absolutely the wrong time.

Please contact your representatives in the state Legislature to urge them to proceed carefully on new groundwater legislation, and to take the time necessary to adequately deliberate the issues and to identify and balance the benefits and risks going forward.