In rural communities including unincorporated pockets of Porterville—north of Bakersfield, California—several hundred residents rely solely on privately pumped groundwater. But their wells are already dry, and they're struggling to cook, clean and bathe. Volunteers and local officials have installed emergency water tanks. And while Tulare County might be ground zero for the drought, groundwater management is a statewide dilemma.
Gov. Jerry Brown last year signed the state's first groundwater law, despite years of resistance from the farm lobby. The Sustainable Groundwater Management Act requires local districts to measure and report details on regional groundwater amounts. While documentation on an individual well-owner basis will not be mandated, the regional guidelines mean communities at least collectively have to account for how much groundwater they're extracting. And that likely means more well metering on the horizon.
"It's irresponsible that we don't say, 'Everybody's got to measure how much we're pumping and reporting,'" said Brian Stranko, head of the California water program at the Nature Conservancy. "If we don't measure it [groundwater use], we can't manage it. In many cases we don't know how much is being pumped and by whom," he said.
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It's odd that tree-hugging California—with its thick stack of environmental rules—only recently adopted its first groundwater law. Part of why lies in the region's open West attitude.
As private landowners, your land is well, your land. But sourcing groundwater ownership can be trickier. And it depends on who you ask. When you drill down, say 1,000 feet, and pump up water, you're also potentially tapping your neighbors' groundwater from peripheral lands.
Such drilling activity is not illegal. And landowners argue they own the land and the water underneath, period. Full stop.
With no groundwater regulations until recently, the number of wells and pumps are estimates at best. "The mentality among landowners is, 'This is really my water,'" said Thomas Harter, a groundwater hydrologist at the University of California, Davis. Landowners think "'it's part of my property and I don't want anybody to look over my shoulder,'" he said.
That argument might have worked in normal precipitation years. But after decades of groundwater extraction, pockets of land have been sinking from Merced down to Bakersfield—at first by inches, and now by feet.
"There are large parts of the southern Central Valley that last year alone have sunk between six inches and a foot," Harter said.
And it might get worse before there's relief. Every year, the California Department of Water Resources manually surveys snowpack that melts into spring runoff. It's a key source of surface water for the state. Officials in April found snowpack had the lowest water content in more than six decades. Gov. Brown imposed mandatory statewide cuts in urban water use—the first ever.
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As California grows ever more pockmarked with more water drilling and pumping, there's a monthslong waiting list for drilling operators in some part of the state. "Those with more money can drill deeper and deeper," said Doug Obegi, a water expert and attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council. "There's been a continuing race to the bottom." (Tweet This)