State legislation to regulate the depletion of groundwater is moving forward as the current historic drought continues and reservoirs draw precipitously down. State water agencies support legislative proposals to monitor and regulate groundwater in the public interest as the drought threatens both surface and below-ground water supplies. But North Coast grape growers and the wine industry are opposed to this growing support to monitor and regulate groundwater, even as the drought forces more intensive exploitation of groundwater as an alternative to fast-depleting reservoirs.
Rapid drawdown of groundwater by agricultural wells in California has spurred a state push to monitor and manage agriculture’s groundwater pumping. Bills from Assemblyman Roger Dickinson and Sen. Fran Pavley propose local water-basin sustainability plans with assistance and approval from the state. Pump stations would be state-monitored and subject to takeover for water-use violations.
Deficits in surface water supplies are driving a rush to compensate by increased pumping of deeper wells draining groundwater that also sustains summer flows of streams and the survival of steelhead and salmon on the North Coast – including the Gualala River. Groundwater is not regulated in California. All vineyards can install wells and pump groundwater without state or local regulation on the amount pumped, and without any monitoring of impacts on creeks that depend on the same groundwater basin to sustain low flows in the dry season.
Not only does the wine industry resist groundwater regulation, but deliberate loopholes in Sonoma County’s vineyard erosion control ordinance make new vineyard development projects immune to standard environmental impact analysis requirements that normally apply to groundwater and well use, especially where vineyards are developed next to steelhead or coho streams.
A broad coalition of water advocates and agencies, including groundwater users has gotten behind legislation that would end California’s status as the only Western state that doesn’t manage groundwaterand surface water and groundwater as part of the same hydrologic system. Friends of Gualala River (FoGR) is working to support regulation of groundwater in order to ensure adequate base flows for steelhead and salmon-spawning streams. FoGR is also working to make sure that new vineyards do not evade environmental laws like CEQA which requires them to analyze and disclose potential impacts of wells or surface water diversions on streamflows.
For an analysis of the North Bay aspects of pending legislation to regulate groundwater, and wine industry opposition to it, read Of Water and Wine: North Bay winegrowers face state oversight, by Tom Gogola, published in The Bohemian, July, 2014.