California landowners resist efforts to monitor groundwater

California's drought drama and how we got here
California's drought drama and how we got here

In drought-parched California, there's a topic many private landowners remain steadfast about: Water well metering. 

During normal precipitation years, surface water found in rivers, lakes and reservoirs is ample enough to supply roughly two-thirds of state water used annually. But during more recent dry years, farmers and drillers have been digging deeper for groundwater—precious liquid tucked underneath the earth's surface. Groundwater flows naturally to the top, or can be pumped to the surface through wells. Groundwater can account for half of total state water consumed in drought years.

The management of groundwater for the most part has been an inside issue among city water officials, agricultural guys and scientists. But in year four of California's historic drought, groundwater has exploded as everyone's problem. 

The mentality among landowners is, 'This is really my water.'
Thomas Harter
groundwater expert, UC Davis
Residents fills buckets with non-potable water from a tank set up in front of the Doyle Colony Fire Station on April 23, 2015, in Porterville, California. Private wells here have gone dry.
Getty Images

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)

Workers install a new drill pipe in search of water at a farm near Mendota, Calif.
Getty Images

In some cases, agricultural neighbors are squaring off with fellow neighbors. "You actually started to see farmers being affected by farmers," said Stranko of the Nature Conservancy. "It became really stark and became a problem for everybody," he said. 

As the state works toward groundwater solutions, well metering and measuring are wedging into conversations. But it's a tough sell for landowners and private well owners.

Not on my land

A recent update on California's drought noted gaps in groundwater monitoring. Among the reasons for the data gap: Reluctance of private well owners to grant permission to monitoring entities. Other well owners were hesitant to release well construction details, according to a November 2014 update from the state's water agency. 

Turns out groundwater isn't just about water supplies, farming and who owns what. Groundwater stirs up strong feelings about how to live in the open, land-rich West. "Private landowners feel like it's their own property right so why should they have to report out" on groundwater activity, Stranko said. "But the groundwater basin is a commonly held resource," he said.

Most California groundwater wells as of now have no flow meters. "Most people are against it. It's the settling the West mentality," explains Brian Lockwood, a water expert in Northern California. 

Lockwood helps manage water resources for the Pajaro Valley. Located adjacent to Monterey Bay, excessive pumping over decades reduced groundwater and created other problems.

Seawater intruded into the region's freshwater supplies, vital for drinking water and crops. In some parts, seawater intrusion exceeds two miles inland along the coast. To combat the problem and better understand groundwater use, the valley drafted a management plan and constructed water supply facilities among other measures including launching well metering in 1993. 

As someone whose already done the touchy work of attaching meters on wells, Lockwood's a popular guy in California. Water managers up and down the state approach him after water meetings and want to know, "How did you do it?"

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The Pajaro Valley: One region's water story

From water resources to crop variety, the Pajaro Valley is like a time capsule for California's shifting agricultural bounty. The valley generates about $30,000 in revenue per acre annually, making it among the most productive agricultural land in the country.

Years ago the region was full of apple trees. But changing diets and fancier taste buds nudged farmers to yield to higher-revenue crops including strawberries, raspberries, blackberries and vegetables. But the newer crops consume more water and have pushed the valley to actively manage groundwater through metered extractions and other strategies. Farmers are boosting irrigation efficiency by adopting new technology including sensors that send farmers soil moisture data in real time on mobile devices. 

"The thing is we have a plan," said Lockwood, senior hydrologist for the Pajaro Valley Water Management Agency.

A snowless mountain along California Highway 88 at Red Lake on April 12, 2015, near South Lake Tahoe, Calif.
George Rose | Getty Images

Water for all

But change can be hard, even out West. And the biggest hurdle to more well metering and groundwater monitoring may be sheer will.

"People are used to turning on their faucets without thinking about how much they're using," said Harter of UC Davis. "It's a painful process." The groundwater law is a place to start with the goal of sustainability by 2040. 

Meanwhile in Tulare County, there are more than 1,000 private well failures forcing hundreds of residents to patch together other water supplies. "People are suffering from dried-up wells," said Omar Carrillo, senior policy analyst for the nonprofit Community Water Center, based in Visalia, California. "And it's getting worse." 

Said Obegi of the NRDC, "The dramatic increase in groundwater pumping has focused people's minds that we need to better manage our water resources for all of us." 

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