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Groundwater Management - Another Elephant in the Living Room

Barry Nelson

Posted January 31, 2011

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It seems that everywhere you look today, you find another elephant in California’s water policy living room.  The impacts of climate change?  That’s an elephant.  So are the Delta’s collapsing ecosystem and the earthquake faults that run beneath it.  Ditto the fact that we have hit “peak water” on all of California’s river systems.  But the most overlooked of these aquatic elephants is the state of California’s groundwater. 

On Tuesday, Feb. 1, the Assembly Water Parks and Wildlife Committee will hold an oversight hearing on groundwater issues.   I thought that, prior to the hearing, I’d suggest three key points to listen for in the discussion.                                                                                                               

First, California is in a league by itself – and not a good one – when it comes to groundwater management.  Contrary to rumor – not even Texas has such a Wild West approach to groundwater management.  (See Figure 8 in Liquid Assets, the Legislative Analyst’s report on options to improve groundwater management.)  In many parts of the state, groundwater pumping is unregulated, unmanaged, and unmonitored. 

Imagine, if you will, that 10,000 Californians have your ATM card and PIN number.  Imagine how hard it would be to maintain a healthy balance in your bank account with such unmanaged withdrawals.   Now imagine that these withdrawals aren’t even reported in your monthly account statement.  That’s the groundwater situation in parts of the Central Valley.  Every other state has taken more steps than California has taken to manage this critical, common resource.    

Second, the extent of groundwater overdraft is staggering.   The state’s most comprehensive analysis of groundwater resources is Bulletin 118, last completed in 2003.  That document  concluded that groundwater is being overpumped at a rate of 1-2 million acre-feet per year.  Since then, however, evidence is piling up that the actual situation is dramatically worse.  Here’s a 2009 post about a NASA report that found enormous overdraft since 2003.  But perhaps the most sobering numbers are the largely overlooked groundwater conclusions in the 2009 State Water Plan Update

Table 4-2 in that report (on page 4-22 of Volume 1) includes year-by-year overdraft numbers from 1998 to 2005.  Several facts jump out.   For example, DWR reported overdraft in each year – even in 1998, a year that had 171% of average precipitation.  In 2005, despite 127% of normal precipitation, pumping exceeded recharge by 4.1 million acre-feet.   Over these eight years, overpumping averaged 7 million acre-feet each year.  That’s an annual deficit larger than the all-time record for Delta export pumping in a single year by the State Water Project and Central Valley Project.  Wow. 

The impacts of this level of unsustainable pumping are far-reaching – declining water tables, increasing pumping costs, rivers like the Cosumnes literally sucked dry from below, subsiding land and more.  The problem is worst in parts of the San Joaquin Valley and the Tulare Lake Basin. 

Over the long-term, the choice is simple, create a system of effective groundwater management programs or wait until Central Valley farmers simply run out of groundwater or can no longer afford the escalating costs of pumping as water tables fall. Groundwater overdraft is simply borrowing water from the future.  Without comprehensive management, at some point, the bill on this borrowing will come due.   Recently, the American housing market and the Greek and Irish economies have demonstrated painfully what unconstrained borrowing can lead to. 

An historical note is important here: both the State Water Project and the Central Valley Projects were built in part, the public was told, to end groundwater overpumping.  Given the extent of current overdraft and the pressure on all of California’s other water sources, we can’t solve this problem through old-fashioned water development.   We can’t build our way out of this problem.  We must manage our way out. 

Third and finally, overpumping is not the only groundwater problem facing California.  Some parts of California face truly nightmarish groundwater contamination problems.  A decade ago, an NRDC report revealed that 4,000 drinking water wells had been closed state-wide as a result of groundwater contamination since 1984.  Unfortunately, this story hasn’t changed.  The situation is most dramatic in the Central Valley, where dozens of small, largely disadvantaged communities have undrinkable water supplies, as a result of groundwater contamination from agricultural pollutants.  In some towns, farmworker families are forced to pay high costs for contaminated supplies – and then must buy bottled water to drink – with a total cost as much as ten percent of their household income.  Here’s a moving video from the LA Times about the situation in the Central Valley town of Seville.   

There are plenty of strategies to improve groundwater management in California – just look at any other state in the West.  (We can’t do better than Nebraska or Texas?  Really?)  For example, the agricultural water conservation that can help reduce overdraft can also reduce the ongoing nutrient contamination of groundwater basins.   Improved management would also reduce pumping costs, diesel use and improve Central Valley air quality. 

California is facing many water challenges.  Some might suggest that this is not the time to tackle groundwater.  But the reason we are facing so many water elephants today is that we didn’t face them when they were smaller problems.   Unless we make progress soon, our groundwater problems will only worsen. 

What we’re learning in the water policy arena is that elephants don’t travel alone.  They travel in herds.   They don’t wait in line to be addressed one at a time.  And we’ll be much better off trying to tame them now, before they turn on us.   Let’s hope that the Assembly hearing is a start. 

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Wes RolleyJan 31 2011 01:48 PM

Barry, I agree with your hopes. However, as long as remnants of the Sagebrush Rebellion continue to influence Western political discourse, and facts no longer matter when the next release comes out,as long as legislators and policy bureaucrats continue the charade that water agencies are stakeholders and irrigation districts are true stakeholders, we will continue our water wars until there is no water.

Having once participated in the SCVWD's development of a Long Range Water Management Plan, I can attest to the fact that they are not stakeholders for the public.

KarenFeb 2 2011 04:04 PM

On the consumer end, California is the only state that I've lived in that does not charge for water based on usage. I could not understand how my monthly water bill was simply a flat fee, and a minimal one at that (under $20/month for a 3/2 single family house). It was no wonder that sprinklers and decorative fountains ran at all hours of the day and excess water ran down the street gutters.

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