There is no doubt that groundwater is a public resource, critical to everyone who lives in the northern San Joaquin Valley. We drink it, we wash with it and the farmers in our region nourish an $8 billion industry with it.
There is also no doubt that we haven’t been taking good care of it as this awful drought deepens. Dozens of domestic wells have gone dry even as some landowners have pumped furiously so they can make a hefty profit.
That’s why we have mixed emotions about the groundwater legislation Gov. Jerry Brown signed into law Tuesday.
Basically, the three bills will require the establishment of local agencies, such as counties, to develop and implement groundwater sustainability plans by 2025. Sounds simple enough, but the details very well could lead to significant changes for farmers, cities and counties.
It puts pressure on our local leaders to make certain that groundwater is protected without damaging our most important industry.
It is troubling that so many found so much to dislike. Sens. Anthony Cannella and Tom Berryhill and Assembly members Kristin Olsen and Adam Gray joined the California Farm Bureau in decrying the new law. We respect their opinions, but their main criticisms appear to be that it was “hastily written,” that it relies on a “one-size-fits-all approach” and that it’s too costly.
Yet, the bills were in circulation for months and they require local entities to develop their own plans. Only if counties refuse to act will the state step in (or so the state says), and the cost of running out of groundwater would be far greater.
Perhaps farmers fear any state law curtailing their ability to pump whenever they deem necessary. Farming has been the backbone of the Valley’s economy for generations; we recognize their devotion to their farms and their ability be good stewards of resources. But farming in other regions is taking a terrible toll on groundwater and residents.
Other farmers have balked at providing specific pumping information; while the law requires it to be provided, it also keeps it private.
Our biggest problem is that the law pretends to emphasize the “interconnectedness” of all water – in rivers and underground. For instance, if pumping from a river lowers groundwater tables, the pumping can be halted. But there is no mention of the beneficial value of irrigation water replenishing the aquifer – which was Gray’s fervent request just before negotiations broke down.
We remain convinced that Gray’s points should have been incorporated into the law. After all, water from irrigation is how we keep the aquifers filled.
Meanwhile, several sections spoke of protecting the best recharge areas from development, but didn’t make the obvious (at least to us) connection that those “best” recharge areas are exactly where we grow the almonds for their candy bars and grapes for their wineglasses. That should have been made explicit.
Such protections have implications for cities. Modesto plans to use most of the land south of the Stanislaus River for industry. But that is some of the best recharge land in the county. According to the law’s author, Roger Dickinson, D-Sacramento, such a move could spark a successful lawsuit.
Despite our misgivings, there are several positives:
• If it becomes less likely that domestic wells will go dry, that’s a win.
• If farmers outside water districts are required to get permits – not for drilling wells, but for pumping – that’s a win.
• If water agencies are required to justify pumping as their neighbors’ wells are going dry – closing a loophole in Stanislaus County’s groundwater ordinance – that’s a win.
• If it takes so long to get real groundwater protections into place that our aquifers collapse and cannot be refilled, it will be too late.
• If it acts to diminish the largest job, income and wealth generator in this part of the state, that will be a problem no amount of legislation can solve.