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Groundwater management emerges as new water debate issue

By Dan Walters, Sacramento Bee, 3/11/14

A legislative committee kicked around California’s water dilemma the other day – not only its current drought but its longer-term demand/supply imbalance.

At one point, Sen. Fran Pavley, who chairs the Senate’s water committee, raised a point that she’s attempted to bring into the perennial debate before, with little success – whether underground water extraction should be closely regulated to curb overdrafting and stave off collapse of land above depleted aquifers.

Ordinarily, groundwater is the source of about a third of the state’s human water use, but during droughts, that can rise to as high as 60 percent, not only for municipal water agencies but, more importantly, for agriculture.

Farmers turn on their wells’ pumps when water from rivers and reservoirs is curtailed by regulators, courts or Mother Nature.

Seeing it as a matter of economic survival, they are very leery of having to obtain pumping permits subject to protracted bureaucratic and judicial oversight and/or pay for groundwater.

If anything, farmers’ need for alternate supplies has become more acute because their water needs have become less flexible. California agriculture has evolved from crops in fields that can be left fallow if water is lacking to high-value fruits and nuts such as almonds, walnuts and wine grapes, and those very expensive trees and vines die without watering.

The Modesto Bee calculated that 4 million recently planted almond trees on former grazing land in its region alone will consume as much water as 480,000 people, virtually all from underground aquifers.

California is one of a few states that don’t regulate groundwater. Instead, it has what the Legislative Analyst’s Office calls a “patchwork” of laws, local water agency rules and court decisions affecting groundwater use conflicts.

While state law encourages local agencies to oversee groundwater use and to recharge underground supplies, whether to turn on pumps is still largely a decision of individual farmers.

Pavley, an Agoura Hills Democrat, tried, but failed, to make groundwater regulation an issue when an $11.1 billion water bond was written in 2009. With a new effort to rewrite the water bond, she’s raising it again.

An Assembly hearing on Tuesday focused on overdrafting, especially in the Central Valley, and what’s being done to reduce it.

Gov. Jerry Brown is also involved, calling for “serious groundwater management” in his State of the State address and urging legislation to crack down on overdrafting, including state intervention if local agencies don’t act.

The groundwater issue is not going away and Brown and like-minded lawmakers could insist that it be included in pending water bond legislation.

That said, the best antidote to overpumping would be more above- or below-ground storage to ease droughts’ impact – another big issue in the bond bill.

Call The Bee’s Dan Walters, (916) 321-1195. Back columns, Follow him on Twitter @WaltersBee.

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