EDITORIAL: State Needs to Protect Precious Groundwater
State and federal officials have rightly been accused of tunnel vision in dealing with California's numerous water challenges. Nearly all their recent focus has been on building new plumbing in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, largely to improve water supplies for water contractors south of the Delta.
Completely missing from the debate are California's groundwater resources, which in dry years provide nearly 40 percent of the state's supplies.
As the state enters a new phase of Delta wrangling, these groundwater resources -- out of sight, out of mind -- are being seriously mismanaged. A recent study by the U.S. Geological Survey warns that the Central Valley aquifer is being depleted at an unsustainable rate, even though the state has enjoyed numerous wet years since the drought of the early 1990s.
Scientists interviewed by The Bee's Edward Ortiz aren't mincing words about the possible impacts.
"Unless we start doing very large-scale recycling, we run out of groundwater in the Valley," said Jay Famiglietti, director of Hydrologic Modeling at the University of California, Irvine. "It might be 50 years or 100 years, but it is going to happen."
Like other studies, the USGS report finds that the most severe overdrafting of groundwater is occurring in the Tulare basin of the San Joaquin Valley, which is home to both irrigated farmland and large dairy operations. Scientists estimate the overdraft of the Tulare basin to be about 1.4 million acre-feet of water yearly -- enough to supply more than 2.8 million households.
Along with depleting groundwater, agricultural operations are also contaminating groundwater with nitrates -- a health threat to anyone who depends on wells for their drinking supplies.
But the San Joaquin Valley isn't the only place where groundwater is being overpumped, land has subsided and aquifers are in danger of being depleted.
The Salinas Valley and other Central Coast basins have a groundwater problem. So do farmers south of Sacramento, where excess pumping near the Cosumnes River has caused a reduction in flows down this river, a spawning ground for wild salmon.
California's groundwater and surface water supplies are connected, and yet California, unlike many Western states, has no law that governs groundwater use. Hundreds of local agencies have some jurisdiction over groundwater, but monitoring of usage is spotty. As the Legislative Analyst's Office has noted, there is "a lack of comprehensive data on statewide water use."
Lawmakers and state water officials need to change that. M. Rhead Enion, a fellow in environmental law and policy at the UCLA law school, laid out the scope of the problem in a report last year, and recommended solutions. He suggested a state-local framework for groundwater management, with the state setting enforceable standards and local agencies choosing how to best ensure a sustainable yield of groundwater pumping. The report also noted that, although the state has moved toward standardized monitoring of groundwater elevations, much more needs to be done in this area.
State and federal leaders must be part of the push for better groundwater management. In the Central Valley, groundwater makes up 80 percent of total water use, but gets much less attention than management of streams, rivers and the Delta. That needs to change if California's cities and farms are going to survive the droughts in our future.