Groundwater Management Urgently Needed

In an opinion-editorial in the Contra Costa Times, Bay Area Council President and CEO Jim Wunderman joins with Maurice Hall, Ph.D., the science and engineering lead for The Nature Conservancy’s California Water Program, in support of two groundwater management bills under consideration in the California Legislature. 

Imagine a checking acco

unt that allowed you to pull out as much money as you want, for as long as you want, without ever having to worry about deposits or overdrafts. Sounds too good to be true, doesn’t it? It is.

It’s also how we use groundwater in California: If you can drill it, you can withdraw it — as much as you can, whenever you can — and nobody is responsible for making deposits. If we don’t change course, sooner or later the pumps will hit bedrock and the checks will bounce. Should that happen, it would be disastrous for California’s environment and economy.

It’s time for lawmakers to end the deficit-spending of our groundwater reserves, and to enact sensible reform.

In normal years, California taps groundwater for almost 30 percent of its overall supply. Some areas rely almost exclusively on groundwater. In severe drought years like the present, groundwater use can surge to 60 percent, and even more in places like the Central Valley. A recent study by UC San Diego’s Scripps Institute of Oceanography found that since 2013 California has lost more than 63 trillion gallons of groundwater, the equivalent of “flooding four inches of water across the United States west of the Rocky Mountains.” This is unprecedented.

The risks of such overuse are profound. Human activity cannot exist without reliable water resources, and a catastrophic overdraft of our groundwater reserves would almost certainly lead to emergency diversions from environmental flows for protected fish and wildlife. The man-made disaster would swiftly become an ecological one, with ruinous outcomes for both.

At the present rate of groundwater extraction, we run the risk of depleting this resource and eliminating what one Stanford University study called California’s “hydrological safety net.”

Groundwater overdraft has even begun to alter the state’s geography. A 1,200 square mile area of the Central Valley is currently sinking as much as a foot a year, damaging roads and canals and wasting both water and tax dollars.

All of this makes it more important than ever that we develop a sensible statewide plan for managing our groundwater. Fortunately, two pieces of legislation are being considered for this very purpose, Senate Bill 1168 and Assembly Bill 1739. Under these bills, local governments would be tasked with regulating groundwater in a way that makes it sustainable by 2040 and state government gets the power to become involved with regulation only when local efforts are unsuccessful.

The benefits would be enormous:

  • It will protect a precious resource: Roughly 30 million people rely on groundwater for a portion of their drinking water. In addition, our state’s natural beauty and billion dollar recreation industry depend upon groundwater, particularly during our state’s long, dry summers.
  • It will save jobs: California farms and ranches depend on groundwater for irrigation. Without it, the state’s $45 billion agriculture industry would wither.
  • It will ensure clean water supplies: Groundwater is the life’s blood of the agricultural industry, but is also needed by 75 percent of the state’s population who rely on it for a portion of their drinking water.

It will also give teeth to the groundwater-related provisions of the water bond that will appear on the November ballot. Those provisions dedicate $100 million to supporting local regulation of groundwater use and $800 million for cleaning groundwater. Managing California’s groundwater is not only long overdue, but also crucial to the state’s economic and environmental future. It is imperative that we bring this invisible resource into the public eye and properly protect it before it is too late. The time to act is now.

Jim Wunderman is president and CEO of the Bay Area Council, a CEO-led regional business association. Maurice Hall, Ph.D., is the science and engineering lead for The Nature Conservancy’s California Water Program.

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