Drought Brings New Attention to Groundwater

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farm-bureau-logoCalifornia Farm Bureau Federation

Amid California’s deep drought, calls for strengthening groundwater management have gotten louder as water supplies have become tighter. Water experts say they anticipate policy debates on groundwater will pick up speed in coming weeks, and representatives from the California Farm Bureau Federation urged farmers and ranchers around the state to pay attention to the discussions.

Statewide groundwater regulation has been raised as one possibility by some legislators, but most of the voices at a workshop in Sacramento last week stressed the benefits of local or regional management, guided by resources provided by the state government.

The workshop—sponsored by the state Natural Resources Agency, Environmental Protection Agency and Department of Food and Agriculture—represented part of a Brown administration effort to define what local authorities need to manage groundwater and describe a potential state role if local efforts prove unsuccessful.

It’s that potential state role that concerns farmers and ranchers, according to CFBF President Paul Wenger, who spoke at the workshop.

“We have diverse groundwater basins throughout the state and I can tell you, one size does not fit all—one size does not fit anybody at the end of the day,” Wenger said, stressing Farm Bureau will be fully engaged in any discussions about groundwater management.

“We want to protect the water rights of farmers and ranchers while at the same time helping ensure that these resources are sustainably managed for the future,” he said. “Having a reliable, well-managed water supply is essential for agriculture.”

Many groundwater basins are sustainably managed, but officials said many are not. Concerns requiring immediate attention include overdrafted basins, seawater intrusion, degraded groundwater quality, land subsidence and other damage. Groundwater in some parts of the state is the sole water supply for cities, as well as a source for business and agriculture.

“First, I’d point out that we don’t have a groundwater crisis because of a lack of state regulation,” Wenger said. “We have a groundwater crisis because we have a surface water crisis, driven by decades of inaction. It is now incumbent upon those currently in the Legislature and responsible agencies to develop an effective water infrastructure framework for the future of California.”

During the workshop, Tim Quinn of the Association of California Water Agencies and David Orth of the Kings River Conservation District stressed that proposals for improved groundwater management are only viable as part of a larger statewide plan—including surface water reliability, environmental improvements in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and increased water storage.

Orth said local agencies need tools to monitor groundwater and replicate successful programs. He said one of the first steps toward solid groundwater management is to define sustainability of supply.

“We’ve got to set the speed limit … (and) adopting a state definition is critical,” he said.

In addition to recommendations from ACWA, proposals came from a variety of groups, including the Valley Ag Water Coalition, the Planning and Conservation League and the California Water Foundation.

The California Water Foundation proposal suggested management approaches that include defining sustainable groundwater management, developing a program that covers all sub-basins, establishing local management entities and clarifying the state’s role in groundwater management.

Workshop organizers said the discussions were presented in the context of the governor’s 2014 California Water Action Plan, which includes expansion of groundwater storage capacity and improved groundwater management. During the coming months, state agencies said they will be soliciting input on actions to assure local groundwater managers can sustainably manage groundwater consistent with the action plan. No timetable has been announced for developing state policies or introducing legislation.

Because of the seriousness of the groundwater situation, Wenger said farmers are concerned the government may seek to erode private property and water rights, “using the current drought to undo long-established water rights laws in California, especially as it relates to groundwater. That’s our No. 1 concern.”

He said state water law and property rights “have always recognized overlying landowners’ right to access groundwater for beneficial use on their land.” What farmers and Farm Bureau want out of the discussions about groundwater, Wenger said, “is to protect agricultural water rights in any formulation of new laws or regulations.”