Adam C. Gray: A step back could move groundwater solutions forward

08/02/2014 12:00 AM

08/04/2014 9:33 AM

During the first half of the 20th century, overdrafting of San Joaquin Valley groundwater presented farmers and policymakers with a major dilemma. Parts of the Valley were dropping and seawater was intruding into the Delta, threatening to contaminate drinking water supplies. More than 60 years later, the papers are filled with nearly identical headlines.

How did Californians overcome these tremendous obstacles in the past? They built the State Water Project.

As most farmers know, having adequate and reliable surface water is preferable to groundwater; groundwater is what they use when there isn’t enough surface water. The State Water Project, federal Central Valley Project and dams built by local irrigation districts provided farmers with access to clean surface water and, as a result, groundwater pumping decreased and many underground aquifers recharged.

Since 1998, the state’s water supply shortage has averaged approximately 2.2 million acre-feet per year. This year, the Valley faces an estimated shortage of 6.6 million acre-feet, but groundwater will close a significant portion of the gap. But all that additional pumping will cost nearly $500 million.

Even tapping these groundwater reserves, California is facing the most severe drought in its history. It is expected to cost the Central Valley economy more than $2 billion, fallow over 400,000 acres of farmland and cause more than 17,000 people to lose their jobs.

But what happens if the drought endures and eliminates opportunities to recharge our exhausted groundwater reserves? What happens if judges prohibit groundwater pumping altogether (a judge ruled in a Siskiyou County case that local government must regulate groundwater pumping), or the state’s concern for fish dumps what little precious water we have to irrigate into the sea?

Curtailment notices and modified flow requirements are reactions to a problem, not solutions. Telling water rights holders “no” is not part of the solution: It’s only making things worse.

There are no small fixes for this problem. A solution must recognize the state’s failure to sufficiently invest in additional water storage over the last 50 years. It must also acknowledge the significant role that groundwater plays in total water supply. And any plan which redirects additional freshwater flows from current use must include a comprehensive analysis of the impact such diversions have on the recharge of underground aquifers. And it must mitigate that impact.

Our solution must provide new resources, not just new restrictions.

It is this idea, a big solution for a big problem, which has led to a new concept – the San Joaquin Valley Groundwater Conservancy. The Conservancy is not another nameless bureaucratic water board, but a locally controlled coalition tasked solely with the promotion and maintenance of the Valley’s groundwater resources. It is time to elevate the priority of the underground basins which are providing over 60 percent of California’s water supply this year.

The idea is simple: Turn lessons learned from the drought into an opportunity to develop a comprehensive water plan, just as those forward thinkers who developed the SWP and CVP did all those years ago.

A water plan must have an emphasis on the creation of “new” water, both above and below ground. For too long the discussion has included one without the other. A comprehensive water plan needs money for new surface storage but also a groundwater conservancy to make wise investments ensuring wells do not run dry, subsidence doesn’t occur and aquifers are recharged.

Talks on groundwater must be balanced. The discussion needs to include ways to put more water into the ground, not just taking it out. No one wants dead fields, dry wells or ground that is sinking. But if the conversation is only about new restrictions, the solution has already failed.

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