Community Columns

West Side grower: Government meddling in groundwater creates more problems

John Michelena Jr., of Patterson
John Michelena Jr., of Patterson

Move over global warming or cooling, California has a new environmental disaster called groundwater. And where there’s an emergency, we have ambulance-chasing regulators and lawmakers with bureaucratic fixes.

Why are we having groundwater problems?

It’s plain and simple: Groundwater is replacing surface water.

When there’s substantially less surface water delivered to cities and farms, then groundwater becomes the only water that’s left.

Groundwater problems are directly related to government, as are most problems. Sacramento and Washington have seen to it that clean Sierra mountain water doesn’t flow into the valley for agricultural and human purposes at normal quantities. Instead, much surface water has been diverted to the Pacific Ocean to supposedly help fish and the environment.

So we are not utilizing reservoirs and aqueducts as they were intended, which is an injustice to all taxpayers and users who built and maintain this vast network of dams and aqueducts with financing and continued obligations. We are restricting human creativity that combines water with our rich alluvial soils to grow food. We surely are not using the Valley and its resources to full potential.

However, there’s more than lost opportunities. There’s also higher regulatory costs for those farms and businesses in a state that keeps trying to chew off the productive hands that feed it.

One new regulatory creature is the Sustained Groundwater Management Act created by California’s legislature, signed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown in 2014. Water agencies and associations are currently scrambling, forming plans and having discussions to protect groundwater basins from over-drafting and subsidence, and considering how aquifers at different depths can be recharged. You need not be a prophet to see how this goes. There will be new restrictions on groundwater pumping and assessments on every gallon pumped.

Farmers have already joined watershed coalitions and the Irrigated Lands Regulatory Program involving sediment, erosion, nitrogen and drainage. Coalition membership dues from the San Joaquin Valley Drainage Authority were almost $2.5 million for 2018, and at our last meeting it was said that more money was needed. That’s just one new entity; these regulatory costs didn’t exist five years ago. I suppose we are paying new membership dues for the exclusive privilege of farming in California, which some might call imaginative extortion.

What’s the solution to the groundwater apocalypse facing California?

The solution is easy, cheap and has always worked. Just restore historical surface allotments to what they were from 1960 to 1990, before government got more involved and messed up our surface water. Then our groundwater problems would mostly go away.

New water storage would help too, as nothing has been constructed since 1980 – except taxes and regulations on water. The same urgency should be given to new water projects that can be devoted just to the fish and environment, christening them as Grand Salmon Dam or Newsom Smelt Reservoir.

I will gladly supply the champagne bottles.

John Michelena is a West Side grower and community columnist. He wrote this commentary for The Modesto Bee.