California began managing groundwater under a new law. Experts are not sure it works

In the rural district of Madeira in the San Joaquin Valley in California, some agricultural workers learned to normalize their water on a two-week schedule. Water is transported by trucks and delivered to houses with temporary tanks for storage in their yards.

These tanks typically hold up to 2,500 gallons, enough water to last a family for two weeks if they are careful. The average family in California uses double that at the same time.

“We’ve used too much groundwater in the Central Valley, which we don’t really have, and they’re taking water from our communities now and from future generations,” said Eric Arellano, a lawyer for nonprofit public water center policy.

Orellana works with low-income, most of whom are Latin American farmers in agricultural areas of the Central Valley of California, including with families like Madera who use drinking water from domestic shallow wells.

As farmers pumped more and more groundwater to make up for water shortages during the state’s prolonged drought, hundreds of wells have dried up this year alone. About a thousand households said they lost access to water in 2021, which is ten times more than the previous year. data collected by the California Natural Resources Agency (CNRA).

About 1.3 million Californians are hoping for private home wells to get drinking water, according to study in the American Journal of Public Health.

Last month was an important deadline for many local California groundwater agencies, which had to develop and submit their first-ever groundwater sustainability plans for approval by January 31st.

In 2014, in the midst of the latest extreme drought in California, lawmakers sought to pass the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA), a landmark law aimed at protecting the state’s rapidly dwindling groundwater resources. Unlike surface waters in rivers and streams, water in groundwater aquifers has never been regulated, despite 85 percent of California residents dependent on groundwater some part of its water supply.

Eight years later, it is unclear whether these plans will work. The State Department of Water Resources (DWR) found that a number of plans submitted over the past two years were incomplete or deficient. For example, six plans for areas in the San Joaquin Valley failed to adequately take into account how declining groundwater levels will negatively affect drinking water wells, reduce water quality and lead to subsidence.

The Groundwater Management Act established the Local Groundwater Sustainability Agency (GSA), which was then tasked with developing groundwater sustainability plans and managing groundwater reserves to achieve long-term sustainability by 2040.

Each plan was to include an assessment of historical groundwater conditions and pumping schemes, protocols for groundwater level monitoring, and projects and management actions to ensure that the agency meets its water budget.

Although the law allows for local implementation, the process is ultimately overseen by government regulators, who ensure that the plans avoid a number of “undesirable outcomes”. These include chronic lowering of groundwater levels, deteriorating water quality and subsidence of the land, in which so much water is extracted that the land collapses into emptiness.

The focus of groundwater replenishment under the law was to replenish water in places where most of it was extracted – efforts to meet the needs of agricultural interests, which are among the largest extractions. Groundwater provides 40 percent of the water used by agriculture in California during the normal year, and more than half in dry years. Pumped water far exceeds the amount of groundwater that nature can replenish.

This is one of the reasons why local agencies’ plans to achieve sustainability have been “unrealistic,” said Alvar Escriwa-Bu, a senior fellow at the California Institute of Public Policy.

Local agencies have been overly optimistic about how they will be able to compensate for low water levels through “supply” solutions such as importing water from elsewhere, treating wastewater or conducting more floodwater underground in a process called groundwater replenishment. he said.

Reducing the demand for water and maintaining its use was not seriously considered in the plans, Escriva-Bu added.

Conservation is hard to sell, especially in San Joaquin Valley’s agricultural districts, where it would mean keeping some fields under steam and moving away from an agricultural sector that has historically considered groundwater to be free for all since its use was not regulated before the 2014 law.

DWR found 11 «critically dragged pools”In the San Joaquin Valley as the state’s highest priority regions, where excessive groundwater pumping has led to a sharp drop in groundwater levels.

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A number of local plans also did not take into account the protection of shallow domestic wells, which are the main source of drinking water for many rural settlements in the valley. Three plans in the Kings Basin recognize that 600 domestic wells may dry up, but do not take into account that the unwarranted impact of prolonged groundwater overflow, according to the report California Institute of Public Policy. In other plans, the impact on domestic wells is not discussed at all.

Many of the plans are also inadequate in the quality of water available in the community’s groundwater, said Dr. Daniel Mountjoy, director of research management for the environmental nonprofit Sustainable Conservation.

For example, shallower household wells are more prone to contamination, including nitrate from septic tanks and fertilizers. If groundwater is pumped during a drought, it can pull this shallow, contaminated water to depths commonly used for drinking water wells. Researchers found that nitrates in domestic wells in the Central Valley increased by 300-500 percent in dry years.

This makes the groundwater problem both acute and chronic for low-income communities and most Latinos in the Central Valley. In the short term, these communities are facing a rapidly declining supply of drinking water. In the long run, experts are concerned that prolonged consumption of groundwater will not only reduce the availability of water, but also worsen its quality.

Groundwater sustainability plans could have better protection for domestic drinking water if local groundwater agencies had more representation of agricultural workers, advocates say.

The irony in the Groundwater Management Act’s approach is that the “composition of the GSA is ultimately almost entirely made up of farmers who have contributed to the problem” of groundwater overdraft, Orellana said. “It’s not really a representative system.”

“Our communities have been deprived of overtime pay, are treated unfairly and receive low wages, and then they go home, turn on the tap and drink water contaminated by their employers,” Orellana added. “That’s something we don’t need to learn to live with.”

The mandate of the law on sustainability is still almost two decades, but the deadlines are long.

“The SGMA was not focused on the next five years,” said Felicia Marcus, a visiting fellow at Stanford University who chaired the Water Control Board at the time the 2014 law was drafted. This was designed to prevent the drastic effects of decades of future droughts, which are likely to be much worse.

Marcus added that the deadline of 2040 was necessary to give local and state agencies time to create completely new governance structures where they did not exist before, and to work with a number of stakeholders with competing interests.

“Could state legislation have been tougher on standards? The answer is certain, but it would not pass, ”she said. “It’s a very difficult area, and there’s still a long way to go, but there’s a big boost.” California began managing groundwater under a new law. Experts are not sure it works

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