Groundwater overuse is an invisible problem that has surged with the drought. Shrinking aquifers can bring great risks for the state’s economy and well-being of groundwater-dependent communities, which is why the state stepped in to regulate its use last year. Last week, PPIC’s Water Policy Center and the California Water Institute at Fresno State co-hosted an event that brought together local experts representing agricultural, urban, and rural community perspectives. The discussion addressed the challenges of managing groundwater sustainably and implementing the new groundwater law in the San Joaquin Valley.
The event’s take-away message was clear: it’s time to stop finger-pointing and focus on cooperation. Business as usual is no longer an option when it comes to this shared resource. Local agencies and groundwater users need to come together to determine how to best manage their local resource for long-term sustainability, or risk having the state step in and do it for them. David Orth, a state water commissioner and manager of the Kings River Conservation District, said, “We have the opportunity to come up with good sustainability plans, and if we do it right, the state stays out of it. The burden is on us to succeed.”
Ellen Hanak, director of the PPIC Water Policy Center, noted that the Central Valley “is in many ways ground zero for drought impacts” on groundwater. The fact that more Californians than ever before now say the drought is the biggest issue facing the state provides opportunities for change. (View her presentation slides.)
Moderator Mark Grossi, veteran environment reporter for the Fresno Bee, has seen a shift in thinking about water in the Central Valley as well. “Forgive me for smiling, but I’ve been covering water since Governor Brown’s first term. I grew up in Bakersfield, and covered water in Kern County … Every time the subject of groundwater came up in the valley, people laughed me out of the room. Now we have the kind of drought that people have been talking about for a long, long time”— the kind of drought that has helped launch the workings of a law to manage groundwater more sustainably.
Some cities have begun tackling these issues head on. Luke Serpa, the director of public utilities for the city of Clovis, described a series of investments intended to soften the impacts of the drought, including water recycling, re-use of stormwater to recharge underground basins and other approaches to increase local supply.
Sue Ruiz, who works with local well-dependent communities, brought home the difficult realities of shrinking groundwater tables for people in the region, and the challenges of solving these problems in ways that don’t excessively burden low-income households. She described people whose wells have run dry facing 6-12 month waits for well-drillers to sink deeper wells, a sometimes slow response from the state, and too few dollars to fund long-term solutions. Poverty compounds the problem, as homeowners can’t get a loan to drill a new well if their current one is dry; without a loan, many can’t afford to pay the tens of thousands of dollars it can cost to drill.
“We’re drowning in drought,” she said.
One serious subject got a big laugh. Luke Serpa noted that his city’s mandated 36% water cut is a big hurdle, especially because it needs to happen over a short timeframe. His city’s new unofficial slogan? “If your lawn’s not dyin’, you’re not tryin’.”
View videos from past regional events: