Earth Log: U.S. Geological Survey raises quiet buzz about Calif. groundwater law

The Fresno BeeNovember 26, 2013 

Federal scientists added another piece of evidence last week in the argument for regulating California's underground water — the San Joaquin Valley's famous sinking landscape is still dropping.

The U.S. Geological Survey study showed a 1,200-square-mile section of the west side in Madera, Fresno and Merced counties has dropped almost 2 feet in just two years.

The land is always subsiding in the Valley, but not this fast. It happened quickly, mostly because of new permanent crops, such as almond orchards, in areas of Madera County that do not have access to river water, say many water experts.

The study has some water community insiders quietly buzzing to me about California passing its first law over groundwater supplies. States such as Colorado have had such regulation for years. There is no such law here.

Even among some farmers, there is talk of the regulation, though nobody has stepped up yet to openly suggest it. This political hot potato will burn most anyone, even in a state as environmentally minded as California.

The USGS study is important. Nearly 2 feet of subsidence in two years over a broad landscape is telling, especially with the clarity of new technology. But a swiftly sinking landscape is hardly new in the Valley.

Between 1926 and 1970, the ground sank nearly 29 feet on the Valley's west side. It slowed after farmers started buying Northern California river water to irrigate.

But farmers have long complained to me that drought and environmental regulation at the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta would force them to use more underground water. It defeats the purpose of the projects to deliver water from the north, they say.

Does that move the state closer to underground water regulation? That's the question floating around now.

New EPA chief has ambitious agenda

Keep your eye on the new administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Gina McCarthy. She has an ambitious agenda on climate change, fracking, dirty drinking water and smoggy air.

And she has spirit, if her meeting with The Bee's editorial board last week was any indication. She wants to cooperate with state and local leaders, but she's not giving up her role as environmental watchdog.

"People are nervous, about climate change and water," she said. "They're looking to the federal government for leadership."

What about the issue of hydraulic fracturing or fracking? It involves blasting water and chemicals into shale to free up oil. There's an estimated 15.4 billion barrels of it in California, and the practice already is used in many states.

Should fracking be stopped until science has figured out the impact to the air and water? She said the federal government is conducting extensive studies to answer questions about the environment. But she did not advocate a moratorium.

"Life doesn't stop," she said. "The idea is to provide the best science we can."

When asked about the San Joaquin Valley request to have EPA approve the region's attainment of the one-hour ozone standard, she was clear: It won't happen unless EPA agrees with the local analysis of the ozone problem here.

She also talked about bringing more federal funding to the Valley, touching on environmental justice issues.

"We should be directing funds to where the greatest needs are," she said.


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