California is one of the few states in the country – and the only state in the West – that does not regulate how much water can be pumped from its underground reservoirs. Now, in the face of a record-setting drought, the state legislature has passed three bills designed to manage California’s groundwater resources.
The drought, now in its third year, has affected nearly 100 percent of the state, with over half of the region experiencing “exceptional” drought (the fifth and highest drought category), according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. The lack of water is expected to cost California’s massive agricultural sector billions in lost harvests, forcing the state to enact mandatory water restrictions to residents. Geologists are even reporting that the shrinking reservoirs are causing the mountains to rise.
The drought has also sucked the water out of the San Joaquin Valley. In at least 182 of the 1,400 homes in East Porterville, residents have experienced either “some kind of water issue” or have stopped receiving water from their faucets altogether. In ordinary years, the Tule River feeds the community’s wells – but the Tule River has not experienced an ordinary year in some time.
The county’s Office of Emergency Services has delivered bottled water rations to residents and provided a 5,000 gallon non-potable water tank for bathing and flushing.
“I grew up here,” Tulare County District Five Supervisor Mike Ennis told the Fresno Bee. “I’ve never seen this many people out of water.”
Similar stories are emerging throughout the 58 percent of California suffering “exceptional” drought, which has prompted the state legislature to pass three bills aimed at regulating its groundwater resources.
“The state cannot manage water in California until we manage groundwater,” said Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins. “You cannot have reliability with no plan to manage water.”
The three bills work as follows: SB1168 directs local agencies to create water management plans; AB1739 establishes parameters for state intervention; SB1319 delays state intervention in places where surface water is affected by groundwater pumping.
About 40 percent of California’s water comes from underground reservoirs. During drought, the state pumps an additional 20 percent from those reservoirs. Without regulation, that percentage can vary widely, especially in areas where farmers need to irrigate their fields.
“It’s our savings account, and we’re draining it,” said former Sacramento mayor Phil Isenberg, now with the Public Policy Institute of California. “[A]t some point,” he told the San Jose Mercury News, “there will be none left.”
The groundwater regulatory plan was supported by a coalition of Democrats, water district managers and environmental advocates. It was opposed by Republicans and some agricultural interests that fear the regulation will rob them of their farms.
But Andrew Fahlund, deputy director of the California Water Foundation, believes the bills are long overdue. “”California has lagged behind the rest of the western U.S. in terms of its management of groundwater,” he told the Desert Sun, “and this essentially overcomes about 100 years of a gap in water management in California.”
The bills have been delivered to Governor Jerry Brown for his signature.