Lois Henry

Wednesday, Apr 02 2014 08:27 AM

LOIS HENRY: Water crisis looks a lot like last one, only worse

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    Californian columnist Lois Henry

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By Lois Henry

Groundwater has officially become the "new black" in California. As the drought drags on, it is this season's "must have."

Wells are being dropped like mad, people are worried about subsidence and now the state is talking about ginning up legislation to finally gain some oversight of the wild west that is the world of groundwater.

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Lois Henry appears on "First Look with Scott Cox" every Wednesday on Newstalk 1180 KERN-AM from 9 to 10 a.m. The show is also broadcast live on Bakersfield.com. You can get your two cents in by calling 842-KERN.

It's enough to make your head spin.

But like almost every fashion craze, this one's just another retread.

Oh, yeah -- we've been here before, almost exactly.

After the then-historic drought of 1975-77, water experts and politicians took stock of the situation and decided the state couldn't afford to rely on groundwater to save us again in the next big drought.

An article in the Natural Resources Journal from the early 1980s noted that more than 10,000 wells had been drilled during the '75-77 drought. Even after the drought, the article states, 2.5 million acre-feet a year of groundwater was being withdrawn and not replaced.

So much groundwater was being pulled it was leading to problems with saltwater intrusion in coastal areas, higher pumping costs for farmers and increasing water quality problems.

Not to mention "land subsidence, resulting from drastically lowered groundwater tables, has become a major problem in some regions of the state, notably the San Joaquin and Santa Clara Valleys," the article states.

Sound familiar?

Proposals to create state regulation found their way to the Legislature in 1980, only to fail.

The article states that San Joaquin Valley farmers (who it says were responsible for 1.5 million acre-feet of overdrafting per year) put up the biggest opposition.

The article quotes a San Joaquin Valley Agricultural Commission from 1979:

"The existence of overdraft in the southern San Joaquin Valley does not indicate an 'unmanaged' situation, but on the absence of an adequate supply of supplemental water to integrate into the conjunctive use operations."

That part about needing more supplemental water is especially fascinating from today's perspective since the State Water Project and federal Central Valley Project were both flowing at near 100 percent of their allocations back then.

This year, the state and federal projects will deliver zero water to contractors. But even in normal years, the projects have reduced allocations for environmental concerns.

Where are we now? Exactly where we were then, only slightly worse.

Farmers are dropping wells like mad, everyone's worried about subsidence and, oh, yes, there is legislation afoot to try and get a handle on groundwater regulation.

This time, though, local growers and others are no longer denying we have a big problem. In fact, they've been working to hammer out a local Groundwater Management Committee that could eventually have some authority over groundwater use.

I've written about the committee, which has been in the works since 2010, several times. It's now in the process of getting support to become a joint powers authority. If a bill being introduced by Sen. Fran Pavley is passed, the committee could have a great deal of authority over groundwater use locally.

Don't freak out. Other areas, Orange County, Los Angeles, Riverside, etc., have had similar committees for years with pretty good results. At least those areas aren't overdrafting their basins by an average of 780,000 acre-feet per year, as rough estimates show Kern is. Repeat: 780,000 acre-feet a year (give or take) are being taken out of Kern's groundwater basin and not being replaced. Think about it.

The details of Pavley's bill are still being worked out. But the framework includes defining what it means for a groundwater basin to be "sustainable," explained Eric Averett, who's heading up the local Groundwater Management Committee.

The bill would allow local management entities to find ways to meet that definition and provide resources and technical assistance from the Department of Water Resources. (Those are the carrots.)

If locals don't, or won't, take charge of their own basins, the bill would empower the State Water Resources Control Board to do it for them. (That's the stick.)

Another likely tenet of the bill, which I found very interesting, would create a connection between land-use planning agencies and the groundwater management committee, Averett said. Meaning, possibly, that a city or county would have to get some kind of "will serve" approval from the groundwater committee in their basin before new developments that relied on groundwater could be approved.

Oooo. I see a bruiser of a fight over that.

Anyhow, other bills addressing groundwater will likely to pop up this summer. But Pavley's is coming from the governor's office, so I'm betting it's the one to watch.

I'm no fan of California's brand of overregulation. But, clearly, something needs to be done. We have to face up to the facts. The state and federal projects bringing water south were built decades ago to shore up the valley's already depleted groundwater. We took that water and sprawled, grew entirely new towns, developed even more farmland and now we've planted vast stretches of permanent crops that need more water year-round.

And we're still doing it, even as water from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta has dried up. I see new orchards and vineyards going in all over the valley. It simply cannot be sustained. With every drought, our foolhardy water ways are revealed. Then the rains come and wash away our resolve.

How totally California of us.

Contact Californian columnist Lois Henry at 395-7373 or lhenry@ bakersfield.com. Her work appears on Sundays and Wednesdays; the views expressed are her own.

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