California mulls changes to groundwater regulations amid drought

By Len Richardson

© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.



WASHINGTON, April 16, 2014 - California Governor Jerry Brown is proposing major changes in the way the state regulates water from its underground reservoirs to preserve supplies as the most-productive agriculture state in the nation tries to cope with a historic drought.

In his 2014-2015 budget proposal, Brown called for the phasing in of a comprehensive system for monitoring extraction from such reservoirs. It would also require local water districts to submit standardized extraction data from all groundwater wells. Active Management Areas (AMA) would be established, as in most western states, with jurisdiction over groundwater basins that may cross political boundaries.

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Currently, California farm owners have a right to the water under their land and don't have to disclose how much they use from shared basins. Many who oppose groundwater regulations say Brown's plan is a government property-rights grab.

Groundwater is regulated differently from streams. California requires permits and licenses to take water from streams, rivers and lakes, but no such process exists for groundwater. Surface water and groundwater are treated differently by state law in a way that resource experts say makes little sense, because one affects the other.

“California has the least structure and fewest requirements (compared with any other) states,” said Andrew Fahlund, deputy director of the California Water Foundation.

About 80 percent of Californians rely on groundwater for at least a portion of their drinking water, while some cities and rural areas exclusively rely on groundwater. The underground basins hold 10 times as much water as all the state's surface reservoirs combined. The state's reliance on groundwater skyrockets during dry years and becomes a crisis during droughts. The year that began Oct. 1 is being called the fourth-driest water year in recorded history. A water-year is measured by the Sacramento River unimpaired runoff that dates back to 1906.

To make matters worse, California agriculture has evolved from field crops, where the land can be left fallow when water is in short supply, to include high-value crops such as almonds, walnuts and wine grapes that grow on expensive trees and vines that die without water.

In his State of the Union address, Gov. Brown called for “serious groundwater management,” urging legislation to crack down on over-drafting, including state intervention if local agencies don't act.

There are signs that the state's legal system is recognizing the crisis posed by the drought.

Recently, Tulare County Judge Harry N. Papadakis ordered a landowner to stop pumping groundwater in the southern San Joaquin Valley and shipping it to other areas, to the relief of the Lower Tule River Irrigation District that wants to keep water available for farmers fighting the drought.

Last year, the same irrigation district sued Sandridge Partners LP, alleging that the partnership pumped thousands of acre-feet of water from wells on an unfarmed parcel it owns and moved it 25 miles through pipes and canals to an almond farm on the west side of Kings County.

“When groundwater is pumped out faster than it can be replenished -- a condition called over-drafting -- by law it can't be pumped out and used elsewhere,” explains Alex Peltzer, the Visalia water lawyer representing Lower Tule River Irrigation District.

Sacramento Superior Court Judge Timothy Frawley also ruled that the powerful Kern Water Bank's Environmental Impact Report is inadequate, in that it failed to properly describe, analyze and mitigate potential impacts, “particularly as to groundwater” in relation to its operations.

Some neighboring water districts and others contend that the bank - originally developed by the state but later ceded to private control -- is harming the underground aquifer it's supposed to be managing.

They also argue that because the groundwater bank is replenished with supplies from the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, the operation is increasing demand for water from the environmentally fragile delta.

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