Will CA groundwater regulation bring shortages?

Will CA groundwater regulation bring shortages?


climate nexusOne area of California that largely has remained free of regulation is groundwater. Although state courts “adjudicate” groundwater rights and disputes, this longstanding system largely respects the private ownership of the water. Even the federal government mostly works within this state system.

But that soon could change.

On July 15, the Center for Watershed Sciences at the University of California, Davis released an economic study on the effects of drought on the economy.  The study concluded that economic costs from the drought could be $2.2 billion, with 17,100 jobs lost.

But there are a couple of peculiar things about the study. CWS is not a completely independent, academic group, but partners with environmental advocacy organizations, including Audubon California, the Ecosystem Restoration Program and the Nature Conservancy; with such federal agencies as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Southwest Fisheries Science Center and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service; and with the California Department of Food and Agriculture.

The July 15 press conference on the release of the study findings was not held in California, where the drought is occurring, but 3,000 miles away in Washington, D.C. And the press conference was organized by San Francisco-based Climate Nexus, that describes itself as:

“a strategic communications group dedicated to highlighting the wide-ranging impacts of climate change. Since its founding in 2011, Climate Nexus has drawn upon established and emerging science to personalize and localize the climate and energy story through work with the media, relevant NGOs and other thought leaders.

Press conference speakers said the purpose of the CWS study was to legitimize for the first time regulation of groundwater in California. But would state regulation of groundwater end up politicized for environmental purposes, as already has happened with the regulation of reservoir water?

What is study to be used for?

The full press conference is online. It was hosted by Dianne Saenz, Climate Nexus’ director of Marine Science Communication. According to her Twitter account, she identifiers herself as, “Environmental advocate and science fan, based in the Washington, D.C. swamp.”

At the press conference, she said the study’s purpose was for “an expanded look at the disproportionate effects of the drought on the agricultural sector and the need for better groundwater management.”

UC Davis economist Richard Howitt estimated that 70 percent of the loss of surface water this year would be made up by groundwater.

Howitt diverged from reporting economic impacts to advocating groundwater measurement.  Howitt analogized groundwater to bank accounts. He said California was “like somebody so rich they don’t have to balance their check book. Every other state measures groundwater, but California is unique in not measuring groundwater.”

Karen Ross, secretary of the California Department of Food and Agriculture, said there is no one solution to drought, but “it is time for better groundwater management. … Groundwater is best managed locally and no one size policy fits all.”

She said two bills in the Legislature and the governor’s California Water Action Plan have called for more funding for groundwater management at the local level: AB1739, by Assemblyman Roger Dickinson, D-Sacramento; and SB1168, by state Sen. Fran Pavley, D-Agroura Hills.

She said many groundwater basins are well managed, but some are not, and added, “We have signaled we [the state] will intervene on a very narrow and focused way when local authorities or operating entities are unable to manage groundwater or develop groundwater management plans.”

The politicization of groundwater?

Some clarifications are needed. Contrary to Howitt, California does measure most of its groundwater. The normative way groundwater basins are measured — and managed — in California is through “adjudication,” where groundwater is self-managed, but monitored by local courts and thus left unpoliticized.

Moreover, in California all it takes is a lawsuit brought by one landowner against another to bring about the creation of an adjudicated groundwater basin. And many “unmanaged” groundwater basins are isolated from the state water systems and unable to contribute water to the rest of the state.

The historical trend in California has been that, as surface water stored in reservoirs has been regulated by legislators and court orders resulting from environmental lawsuits, water has been diverted from agriculture and cities to fish flows — ironically causing water shortages, or making them worse.

Wet years are critical to store water for droughts in California. However, in critical wet years, 64 percent of all system water is now allocated to the environment for fish flows.

It was unclear from the media conference whether, once regulated and thus subject to politicization, spot state regulation of some groundwater basins would lead to the same trend as regulation of reservoir water: the taking and diversion of groundwater rights for environmental purposes by regulation without just compensation, actually creating more farm water shortages.

But that’s the critical question all Californians need ask, and have answered, before their groundwater is politicized.


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  1. Mike
    Mike 24 July, 2014, 12:01

    This opinion piece has it all backwards. We already have a serious groundwater shortage. The drought has just magnified that condition. Water is a shared resource. Without regulations, those with the biggest, deepest wells can deplete the resource for all surrounding property owners.
    As for water being wasted on the environment: The writes obviously has no scientific education in biology, geology or hydrology.
    Prior to man’s extraction of water from nature, ALL the water went to the natural environment. Nature is like a huge biological/ physical machine. You remove a critical component from the machine (i.e. water) and the machine cannot function properly. That means rivers can’t carry as much sediment (leading to more flooding), hold back seawater from flowing inland (destroying estuaries and groundwater basins), or support a myriad of critical and necessary habitat and biota (which apparently has no value to the author).
    If water is being ‘politicized’ then this opinion piece is leading the charge.

    Reply this comment
  2. Wayne Lusvardi
    Wayne Lusvardi 26 July, 2014, 13:42

    I would respectfully suggest the anonymous commenter read Robert Kelley’s 1989 book Battling the Inland Sea: Floods, Public Policy, and the Sacramento Valley. In its natural condition the Sacramento Valley flooded annually and an inland sea formed during wet years that nearly bisected the state in two. There was extensive property damage and loss of human life, including decimation of wildlife habitats and ecologies. Perhaps the commenter wants California to be returned to some mythical idyliic and bucolic ecology where man either is absent or peripheral, but we do not have that option in reality today. Floods and estuaries have to be engineered and managed. Nature is more devastating than man could ever be.

    All it takes in California to begin an adjudicated groundwater basin is for one landowner to take another landowner to court alleging over drafting of the groundwater. So there is no need for groundwater regulation other than for political purposes to divide groundwater under the Public Trust Doctrine to constitutuencies of the Democratic Party: commercial sports fishermen, Indian Tribes, water recreation enterprises such as kayaking, and endless environmental monitoring jobs.

    When taking cheap shots at writers credentials one should identify their name, their credentials, any conflicts of interest, and the sources they rely on. Slander and libel should not be allowed on any website.

    Reply this comment
  3. Hondo
    Hondo 27 July, 2014, 21:02

    The Occupy-enviro dream is what Kali was like before white man came to Amerika. Their ‘perfect world’ dream is based on the ecology of 1491. They howl about taking water from bait fish but support millions of 3rd world illegals coming to Kali. The more people you bring in, the more water they need. This is 1st grade math they never figured out.

    Reply this comment

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