In the midst of the last drought, California took its first step to regulate how the state uses groundwater. But advocates worry the new rules have favored big agricultural users over small communities, particularly in areas like the San Joaquin Valley.
That legislation, officially called the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, created a new framework to figure out how to better balance the amount of groundwater that residents, cities, and private industry across California use. The 2014 law created dozens of agencies across California to plan for and provide oversight of that use. The areas facing the most acute threat to their groundwater supply had to submit detailed plans for management by January 31, 2020.
Recent studies show those initial plans, especially in the San Joaquin Valley, could be anything but balanced. Advocates and researchers warn that the way many local agencies have interpreted that law overlooks the needs of disadvantaged communities who rely on groundwater for their drinking water. Many are concerned that households and communities could see their wells go dry in the coming years, leaving them without access to safe and affordable drinking water.
“These plans don't have enough data on how communities will be impacted, which is dangerous,” said Justine Massey, a policy advocate at the Community Water Center. “It's like driving blind and hoping nothing bad happens.”
A report from the Water Foundation, a nonprofit that advocates on water issues, estimates that as written, the current plans could lead to as many as 12,000 wells in the San Joaquin Valley drying up by 2040, and that as many as 127,000 people could lose some or all of their primary water source in the same timeframe. Other research has found that many of the plans fail to address the relationship between drinking water and groundwater at all.
A New Form Of Governance
The 2014 law established Groundwater Sustainability Agencies, a new form of local government tasked with creating and implementing plans to manage California’s underground water resources by 2040. The state has required these new agencies to write Groundwater Sustainability Plans describing their regionally-specific definition of sustainability and explain how they plan to avoid a handful of negative outcomes, including lowering groundwater levels.
“It's a big change that the law is asking people to make in terms of managing a resource collectively, that they were not managing collectively before in this kind of way,” said Ellen Hanak, the director of the Water Policy Center at the Public Policy Institute of California.
Before the law, California did not regulate groundwater. There were no limits on how much water an individual or a company could pump out of the ground, despite knowledge of significant risks like contaminating drinking water wells and subsidence, where the land sinks as more and more water gets pumped.
Many local water managers in the San Joaquin Valley submitted their plans by the January deadline. The plans detail strategies for meeting the requirements of the law. But researchers and advocates have found that many fail to adequately account for the needs of some of the most vulnerable residents of the San Joaquin Valley, where farmers and their water needs hold significant sway.
“We see this tug of war between agricultural users which are pumping large amounts of water out of the ground, and domestic well users who don't have the resources to dig deeper wells,” said Darcy Bostic, a research associate with the Pacific Institute.
'Additional Work To Be Done'
Kassy Chauhan is the executive officer of the North Kings Groundwater Sustainability Agency, which oversees part of the groundwater basin south of Fresno. Estimates have shown that area is home to a higher number of vulnerable drinking water wells than some neighboring basins. Chauhan says working with community groups to involve people who rely on small water systems or domestic wells in the process has been a priority for her, but the challenges have been significant.
“You think about an entirely new form of government in four years and having all the answers, it’s impossible,” she said. “You acknowledge where there is additional work to be done.”
Chauhan says there is a real need for more data about the number of domestic and private wells across California, something she hopes to see her agency address. And research shows that directors like Chauhan are the exception, not the norm.
Kristin Dobbin studies these agencies and plans at UC Davis. She found that about half of small, rural communities in California rely to some degree on groundwater, but less than 20% of those communities are represented in the leadership of their local Groundwater Sustainability Agency.
“[That] tells us a lot about the lack of involvement and even lack of awareness of these low income communities in the groundwater and water management processes,” Dobbin said.
The groundwater management plans that were due in January are now available for public review and public comment. Ultimately, the Department of Water Resources will decide whether to accept or reject the plans as written by agencies across the state. Dobbin hopes the state agency will help ensure disadvantaged communities are not left behind as California regulates at critical resource.
“There's lots of stakeholders that need to be at the table when we're talking about groundwater,” Dobbin said. “But to ensure that we don't leave small unincorporated communities behind, I think, is the opportunity that SGMA presents to us.”
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