Our View: We must protect our water, below and above ground

08/25/2014 6:31 PM

08/25/2014 6:32 PM

Taken by itself, the legislation known as Pavley-Dickinson is a desperately needed attempt to create a sustainable supply of groundwater. But just as creeks connect to rivers and rivers to oceans, groundwater is inextricably connected to the water that flows through our region. And no plan that ignores that essential fact can succeed for us.

We like that Pavley-Dickinson would:

• Require every groundwater basin to develop a sustainability plan within five years (we’d actually like it sooner).
• Ensure local management of those basins, complete with monitoring of water levels.
• Give the state authority to step in if bad plans are made locally or local people can’t agree.
• Respect rights of landowners, but require that groundwater be shared sustainably – meaning pumps could be ordered off.

Consider that groundwater supplies 60 percent of our state’s water and every valley city depends on it – most exclusively. Consider, too, that groundwater is being overdrafted by individuals and even some water districts. Some of those agencies have rejected any responsibility for falling water tables, telling residents to simply drill deeper.

Finally, consider that landowners outside of water districts are pumping furiously, immune to any protestations, and selling groundwater for enormous profits. We need a law.

But here in the Northern San Joaquin Valley, these aren’t our only considerations.

With only days left in the legislative session, legislators are pushing for passage of twin bills by Sen. Fran Pavley and Assemblyman Roger Dickinson. At the same time, the State Water Resources Control Board is formulating demands to send vastly more water down the Merced, Tuolumne and Stanislaus rivers into the Delta. The state could insist on 300,000 acre-feet from the Tuolumne alone and 460,000 acre-feet on the three rivers combined.

The goal is to improve survival for salmon and steelhead trout. We embrace those goals, too, but prefer incremental increases – not opening floodgates.

Having that much additional water would help the state in another of its goals: fixing the Delta. Regulators say the two aren’t connected, but that’s absurd.

Historically, the Sacramento River has supplied 75 percent to 80 percent of the Delta’s water. But the new Bay Delta Conservation Plan would divert much of the Sacramento’s flow south before it ever reaches the Delta – leaving only the San Joaquin River and its tributaries to improve conditions.

Why should we alone be responsible for fixing the Delta? No similar demands are being made on Sacramento, whose unimpaired flow is 23 times greater than that of the Tuolumne. As we said, it’s all connected.

Very late in this debate, Sen. Tom Berryhill pulled a legislative trick by gutting a dormant bill and filling it with new groundwater language. Meanwhile, Assemblyman Adam Gray (also late to the party) laid out similar but more modest goals in a letter: Lessen the state’s forthcoming demands for more water from behind our dams; classify groundwater recharge as a “beneficial use” of surface water; create a provision that allows disagreements over “sustainability” to be adjudicated. We like this approach.

Many are crying foul, but they’re negotiating.

This creates a dilemma. We depend on our rivers to irrigate our fields and replenish our aquifers. That’s why our forefathers built Don Pedro and Exchequer dams, using stored water to nourish our land and make our way of life possible.

We also depend on groundwater, and it’s clear that some people – including public agencies – won’t make sustainability of this shared resource a priority. If we trusted the State Water Resources Control Board, this would be easier; but we don’t, considering their anticipated demand for so much more water to be sent out to sea.

So, do we support a groundwater bill that, eventually, could halt overdrafting and secure our aquifers? Yes.

But only if it also provides guarantees that we will also be able to replenish our reservoirs. After all, reservoirs and groundwater are inextricably connected.

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