Fifty years ago, the rapidly subsiding groundwater throughout the West brought urgent calls for action. Arizona responded. So did Colorado, Oregon, Texas -- yes, Texas -- and others. But not California. It is the only western state that does not have a groundwater management program.
Now California is paying a heavy price for failing to limit pumping of groundwater, which supplies 60 percent of the state's water, as it does diverting water from rivers. Corporate agriculture landowners still resist it, but more and more farmers are acknowledging that the rate of pumping has become alarming.
California needs to require local water agencies to establish and enforce groundwater management plans so that water taken out doesn't exceed what is naturally replenished.
Sen. Fran Pavley's SB1168 and Assemblyman Roger Dickinson's parallel AB1739 would do this, giving agencies until 2020 to adopt plans and empowering the state to step in if they don't. The legislation should become law. It may be more important to the state than Gov. Jerry Brown's $7 billion water bond.
The Central Valley stretching from Redding to Bakersfield now uses twice as much groundwater as it gets in rain and snowmelt throughout the year. The Bay Area News Group's Lisa Krieger reports that its reserves are shrinking by 800 billion gallons a year. Excessive pumping has dried up wells that provided water for agriculture for decades. But rather than conserve, farmers are digging hundreds of new wells, drilling deeper and deeper -- sometimes more than 300 feet -- for increasingly scarce resources.
They're also growing more water-intense crops, including thousands of acres of almond orchards -- a crop largely exported to China at a high profit, but it's coming at the cost of California's water supply. The net loss of groundwater means the entire Central Valley is sinking, in some places by as much as a foot a year.
Santa Clara County years ago recognized this problem and dealt with it. Areas like Alviso weren't always below sea level; subsidence from over-pumping lowered them. The Santa Clara Valley Water District -- a model for the state on this issue -- established a pump tax on well owners in 1964, discouraging them from over-pumping and giving the district the money to put water back underground in wet years. As a result, the water table has stabilized. This is not the case in most of the state.
Corporate ag is still fighting Pavley's and Dickinson's plan, but the thirst for short-term profit endangers the state's ability to ensure a long-term adequate water supply. The Legislature needs to act in the public interest. And in concert with every other state in the West.