California’s Water Well Bill Will Tell Us Who’s Tapping Depleted Groundwater Basins

May 30, 2017 | 8:50 am
Paul Hames / California Department of Water Resources
Juliet Christian-Smith
Western States Regional Director

Groundwater is a shared resource between communities and landowners, much like a joint bank account is a shared resource between individuals. Except in one key way: groundwater users often don’t know who they are sharing water with or how much others are saving or spending.

This might not be a problem when there is plenty of water, but such loose accounting can become very problematic when water is scarce. A new report shows that California’s Central Valley farmers created a groundwater deficit large enough to fill an empty Shasta Lake seven times over during California’s epic five-year drought. This report follows a Sacramento Bee investigation last year that found San Joaquin Valley farmers dug about 2,500 new wells in 2015 alone in “critically overdrafted basins.”

Critically overdrafted basins are already suffering from dramatically declining groundwater levels.

The way it works now, if you live in one of these groundwater basins or if you are in charge of managing one of these basins, you often have no way to know who is sticking new straws into your shared groundwater resource. This affects your ability to achieve sustainability by 2040 as required by the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA) of 2014.

In other words, groundwater users and managers today lack the basic information necessary to make good decisions. They are set up for failure.

That’s why Senator Bill Dodd introduced Senate Bill 252 to create transparency around new wells being drilled in critically overdrafted basins.

Transparency is a foundational principle of both science and democracy. This bill would provide basic information about proposed new wells to neighboring landowners and newly formed Groundwater Sustainability Agencies, exactly the type of information necessary to achieve sustainable groundwater management that California requires, if it’s going to meet its future water needs. This week, the bill will be voted on by the California Senate.

Critics argue that SB 252 is not needed because of SGMA, but the law won’t be fully implemented for another 23 years! And the data show we are digging the groundwater hole ever deeper while full implementation of SGMA is still years away. This bill would provide better information about what is happening right now and sunsets upon the approval of a Groundwater Sustainability Plan (required by SGMA).

The Union of Concerned Scientists is proud to support SB 252. It is a simple and common sense measure that ensures SGMA is successfully implemented. If you are interested in adding your name as a supporter of SB 252, please let us know.