We have all heard of the Gold Rush in the State of California. In recent years, however, a new kind of “gold rush” has taken over the state – the rush for new water supplies. As the drought continues into its 4th year unabated, farmers are scrambling to drill new and deeper wells into the ground. However, these farmers face serious new challenges in their quest to secure new water supplies.
The first challenge is that underground water supplies across the state continue to dwindle. In San Joaquin County, officials this week determined that groundwater levels in the County dropped towards the 1992 low point, long considered the worst hydrologic conditions in the area in recent memory. As surface water supplies dry up and the State Water Project may only deliver 15% of supplies this year, farmers are scrambling to drill new and deeper wells that they hope will get them through the drought. But farmers’ ability to drill new wells may slow significantly and sooner than expected as the regulatory environment in the state changes.
As I wrote about in a piece last year, farmers will continue to face a tougher regulatory environment as the new groundwater legislation gets implemented. Although the groundwater legislation theoretically will not take effect until 2022 in most areas, some counties are not resting on their laurels to address groundwater depletion issues. In this piece, I will provide the context of what California faces with dwindling groundwater supplies and new regulations. I will then discuss the actions Stanislaus County has taken to address groundwater depletion before the deadlines in the groundwater legislation.
The Changing Groundwater Levels and Legislative Landscape in California
The drought in the West seems like it will never loosen its grip. After a record rainfall in some parts of the San Francisco Bay area in December, January and the early part of February has been exceptionally dry. While storm after storm barrels into the Northeast, California, Nevada and Oregon experience the exact opposite conditions. As the current US Drought Monitor conditions show, exceptional drought still covers almost 40% of California. The drastic effect on water supply is understandable. California gets most of its water supply from either surface water or groundwater. But both types of supplies are under significant pressure during this drought. Last summer, the State Water Resources Control Board issued curtailment orders for all but the most senior surface water rights in many watersheds. The State Water Project also provided only 5% of total water supplies, and only after the heart of the growing season.
To make up for these cutbacks in surface water deliveries, farmers across the Central Valley leaned on groundwater supplies as an alternative supply during the drought. Farmers across the Central Valley rushed last summer to drill more wells. San Joaquin County officials for example issued 151 well drilling permits in 2014 versus 55 permits from the previous year. Similar increases in drilling permit activity occurred across the Central Valley. Anecdotally, farmers said that they have to wait in some instances up to a year before a contractor had the time to drill the well.
Many farmers raced to get access to this supply of water because up until last year, many areas of California essentially had little or no regulations on groundwater pumping. There are some areas mostly in Southern California that have adjudicated groundwater basins and pumping limitations in place for the groundwater table. In contrast, much of the Central Valley had little restrictions on the amount of pumping that could take place. As the state curtailed surface water rights, farmers raced to tap this unregulated resource. However, the game-changing groundwater laws that the legislature passed last fall began the process of changing this practice.
As I wrote in a piece last summer when the legislature debated the groundwater legislation, basins designated a high priority and that are in critical overdraft must have groundwater sustainability plans (GSPs) in place by 2020. Medium and high priority basins not in critical overdraft have to put GSPs in place by 2022. So what happens in between now and 2022? Can counties keep issuing drilling permits for unregulated groundwater extraction until then? The answer is it depends on where you are, as “all politics is local.” Some counties have taken a more proactive approach to addressing the groundwater sustainability issue before the state-mandated timeframe.
All Politics Is Local, and Groundwater Regulation is no Exception
Across the state, a few counties have taken steps to address groundwater management. Recently, Rod Smith wrote about the pickle Harvard University may find itself in with its vineyard properties in San Luis Obispo County. Many areas of the state have seen an increase in permanent crop plantings over the last few years, and now they must address the issue of finding reliable water supplies for these crops in the long-term. Stanislaus County is no exception to this phenomenon or the debate over groundwater sustainability.
Stanislaus County saw a 57% increase in almond acreage plantings from 2006-2012. Acreage increased from 98,700 acres in 2006 to 155,114 in 2012. Almond trees are permanent crops and need constant watering to survive. While annual crop farmers can fallow land in extreme drought, permanent crop farmers cannot let their trees die without serious economic consequences. Much like other parts of the state, farmers in Stanislaus County looked to drill more wells to tap groundwater supplies. Farmers drilled about 300 wells in 2013 in the County. The new wells and the spotlight on the drought caused some lawsuits and new regulations in the area over well drilling and groundwater.
In early 2014, the environmental group Protecting Our Water and Environmental Resources sued a group of farmers in Stanislaus County to block them from drilling new wells. The plaintiffs argued that the County did not take into consideration the environmental impacts of new drilling permits and, as such, the permits should be rescinded. While the case got mired down in legal wrangling, it did not stop the County from embarking on regulatory reforms related to groundwater sustainability.
In October of last year, Stanislaus County made adjustments to its well drilling and groundwater sustainability management regulations. Specifically, it passed an ordinance that:
- Ordered well drilling permit applicants to show that the new well will not have a detrimental impact on the County’s groundwater supplies.
- Well owners must submit metering data at regular intervals to the County.
- The ordinance also banned the export of groundwater from the County.
New regulations at both the state and local government levels show that the increased scrutiny on groundwater supplies likely won’t go away any time soon. Counties from San Luis Obispo to Stanislaus are getting ahead of the state groundwater mandates and addressing these issues head on. As the drought wears on and water supplies continue to shrink, I bet that we will see this phenomenon continue.