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Protect state’s groundwater and the public interest now!

Friends of Gualalal River (FoGR) is a member of the North Coast Stream Flow Coalition, which supports rational management and regulation of groundwater to protect streamflows. FoGR endorses Chris Malan’s policy analysis and recommendations in her op-ed essay, below.

Protect state’s groundwater and the public interest now!

by Chris Malan
Chair, North Coast Stream Flow Coalition
Op-ed published in the Eureka Times-Standard
July 24, 2014

In this drought year the Brown administration is pushing hard to bring regulation to the outdated and anarchic world of California groundwater. That is something all Californians should support. While there are a few groundwater basins — primarily in Southern California — which are managed locally or regionally, in most parts of California anyone can still buy a parcel of land, sink a well and begin extracting as much groundwater as that person or corporation can afford to pump.

The result of this free-for-all is that, in many of California’s groundwater basins, groundwater extraction now exceeds the ability of precipitation to recharge the groundwater. As the elevation of groundwater falls, municipal drinking water and irrigation wells must now be deepened at regular intervals at great cost to taxpayers and farmers. The quality of groundwater has also declined leading to further increased costs to render groundwater suitable for drinking and, in some cases, even for irrigation.

In some watersheds, excessive groundwater pumping has also negatively impacted stream flows. In the most extreme cases, excessive, unregulated groundwater extraction has dewatered streams and entire rivers. In these watersheds swimming areas which served communities for generations have vanished and fisheries — including salmon and other fisheries on which local economies depend — have been decimated or totally lost.

So it is a good thing that California, being the last state in the western USA to do so, could finally regulate groundwater on a systematic and state-wide basis. And since another “well-drilling arms race” is underway in the San Joaquin Valley and groundwater levels are falling across the state, groundwater regulation can’t come on line soon enough.

As with all things political, however, the devils of groundwater management will be in the details of what emerges from the California Legislature and the State Water Resources Control Board. There are currently two groundwater bills — SB 1168 and AB 1739 — working their way through the legislative process. Agricultural, environmental and other interests — as well as local and regional water agencies — are working hard to influence the legislation; what will emerge from this political process remains in doubt.

With so many powerful interests vying for influence, it is very possible that the public interest will be lost or damaged in the process. In particular, there is a real possibility that the impact of groundwater extraction on streamflows will not get appropriate attention. If that happens, the dewatering of California’s rivers and streams will continue or could even accelerate, as will the loss of the public benefits of free flowing streams.

Gov. Brown, the California Legislature and the State Water Resources Control Board can and should usher in a new era in which groundwater is managed responsibly state-wide. Responsible management will include clear legislative recognition of what is now settled science: groundwater and surface water are a single resource and can only be properly managed as such. The artificial distinction in current California law dividing groundwater into two distinct, fictional phenomena — percolating groundwater and underground streams — must be abolished.

Recognizing the clear connection between surface and groundwater and requiring that the impact of groundwater extraction be assessed and addressed in groundwater management is not favored by many of the powerful interests vying to influence California Groundwater Management. Gov. Brown, California legislators and the State Water Resources Control Board must resist the desire of those interests to sweep the public interest aside. As they usher in a new era of water management, California leaders sworn to uphold the public trust should make sure that the impact of groundwater extraction on streamflow is assessed and addressed. Anything less would not be in the public interest.