Mercury News editorial: California should embrace breakthrough on groundwater protection
In a remarkable turn of events, California’s devastating drought could produce one of the state’s biggest environmental breakthroughs in decades.
Lawmakers need to seize the moment and enact groundwater management legislation to halt the draining of the aquifer under the state’s most fertile farmland, a deepening crisis that the Mercury News’ Lisa Krieger vividly described in a Page One story in March.
For years, powerful agriculture groups have fought efforts to deal with the state’s depleted groundwater, resisting any limits on farmers pumping from wells on their property. But on Monday, when the Association of California Water Agencies (ACWA) released recommendations to solve the state’s groundwater crisis, limits and pump taxes were part of the plan.
And the water agencies from agricultural regions in the Central Valley, the most sensitive to farming interests, are on board.
The premise comes straight out of Santa Clara County’s playbook: Establish a pump tax or other fee on wells that gives water agencies the money to put water back underground in wet years, recharging the water table and stopping the subsidence of land that can result from overpumping.
The Santa Clara Valley Water District has been doing this since 1964, which is why the valley doesn’t have the groundwater problems common in the Central Valley.
It could even begin to reverse the decades-long pattern of degradation in the San Joaquin Valley. Hats off to the farmers and water agency leaders behind it. Now it’s up to the Legislature to send a bill to Gov. Jerry Brown.
Some property owners in Santa Clara County and elsewhere are challenging water agencies’ right to tax what they pump from wells on their own land. Those challenges will increase if the state adopts the ACWA plan, but it’s a legal fight worth taking on.
California’s groundwater is a statewide resource that needs to be regulated. Subsidence from overpumping risks permanent changes in the underground flow and severe damage to roads, bridges and canals as land sinks.
The water table in the Tulare Basin, for example, has dropped more than 20 feet a year from 2005 to 2010 from excessive pumping. But Tulare County farmers show no signs of exercising self-restraint: They applied for an additional 182 well permits in the first month and a half of this drought year.
Besides a pump tax, water agencies support placing limits on how much can be pumped when the ground starts to sink. That is crucial to protecting the aquifer and surface construction.
Lawmakers also should approve increasing the height of several dams to store more water in wet years. This can dramatically increase storage with less environmental and legal anguish than building new dams on wild rivers.
The Association of California Water Agencies’ proposals represent a real breakthrough. The Legislature needs to act.