CFBF president's message: Groundwater: One-size-fits-all won’t fit anyone


Issue Date: April 16, 2014
Paul Wenger

If you're a government agency, how do your perpetuate your existence? Identify a crisis, "fix" it—which, in turn, creates a new crisis—and then "fix" that. Repeat as needed.

That's what I think about every time I hear some newspaper editorial writer or academic call for statewide groundwater regulation in California.

The drumbeat has been growing louder the last few weeks. Some of the state's largest newspapers have published lengthy stories about land subsidence in the San Joaquin Valley—a serious problem—and using terms like "unrestrained" or "relentless" to describe current groundwater pumping patterns.

The stories don't mention the significant efficiency improvements California farmers have made. They don't mention that farmers and their land provide the greatest opportunity for groundwater recharge, yet farmers are frequently castigated for using "too much water."

But the stories always point out that California has no statewide permit system for groundwater drilling, and that it's one of the few states that doesn't. The implication is clear: California should impose statewide groundwater regulation to keep farmers from draining our aquifers. The stories typically don't quote anyone who thinks it's a bad idea.

I think it's a bad idea. So does Farm Bureau.

First of all, I should point out that Farm Bureau does not oppose groundwater management—but we do oppose statewide regulation. We have at least a 20-year history of support for the creation of local groundwater management plans that respect the overlying landowners' water rights. Those rights are crucial, because the value farmers pay for their land is inextricably tied to the water beneath their land and to their ability to access it when and if needed.

In a 1994 news release, Farm Bureau urged farmers to become involved in developing a local groundwater management process, and offered its legal services to farmers interested in forming local groundwater management districts. Farm Bureau policy continues to support the ability of water users anywhere in California to organize and administer their own groundwater basin management programs.

Local management makes sense in California for the same reason statewide regulation doesn't: When it comes to groundwater, California isn't one state—it's more like 40 states. We have many types of aquifers, each unique and dependent on different conditions—so much so that a one-size-fits-all approach will result in disaster. Our government has failed in its oversight of our surface water infrastructure and will likewise fail with groundwater.

We don't have a groundwater crisis because of a lack of state regulation. We have a groundwater crisis because we have a surface water crisis, driven by inept planning and oversight of our surface supplies.

Those newspaper stories about groundwater contained a telling point buried within their historical narrative of land subsidence. They noted that subsidence had been a serious issue in the San Joaquin Valley in earlier generations—until the State Water Project and the federal Central Valley Project brought surface water to the area, at which point, as the Sacramento Bee reported, "subsidence largely stopped."

It has started again because the surface water has been taken away, by redirection of that water to environmental uses and now by a severe drought year on top of two previous dry years.

When sufficient supplies of surface water exist, farmers generally rely on groundwater as their "bank account," to be drawn on in times of shortage. Underground water supplies can recover quickly during wet years. But when surface water shortages become chronic—as they have in parts of the Central Valley and elsewhere—that bank account gets drawn down further.

Water shortages have become chronic because government has succumbed to myopic environmental interests and, as a result, has failed to respond to the forces that have created the crisis:

  • Endangered-species laws remain inflexible and archaic. We have developed new technologies to improve the human-carrying capacity of the earth, but environmentalists would rather impose their elitist views that nature must survive the way it has since the beginning of time.
  • New water projects get "studied" to death. There has been $52 million worth of paperwork generated on the proposed Sites Reservoir, for example, so much that we could practically build the project out of that paper itself.
  • Big-money environmental groups wield their influence to force government into a "conservation only" approach that clearly has failed, and failed miserably. Ironically, many of those who warn about climate change and its impacts fail to acknowledge the need to build storage to adapt to the very conditions they portend.

And now, in the wake of land subsidence caused by lack of surface water, comes the cry to the government: "Do something! Anything! Even if it's wrong!"

Those people want the same government that has completely and thoroughly mismanaged our surface water system to take over the groundwater aquifers, too.

A crisis can bring out the best in people, but it can also lead to calls for action—any action—that allow desperately bad ideas to gain a foothold. Statewide groundwater regulation in California is one of those desperately bad ideas.

Instead of focusing on statewide control of our groundwater, the government ought to do its job in providing for the future needs of our state and develop water solutions we know work: additional water storage both above and below ground, more investment in water recycling, desalination and efficiency. The state should leave the management of groundwater to the local communities who understand it and depend upon it for their survival.

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.