Bill to protect state’s aquifers, groundwater moves forward

April 12, 2016 9:01pm
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•  Senate committee OKs measure

•  “This is a serious problem that affects everyone, and it’s getting worse”

Legislation to protect California’s aquifers and groundwater resources from permanent damage due to over-pumping has been approved by the state Senate Committee on Natural Resources and Water on a 6-2 vote.

“This is a serious problem that affects everyone, and it’s getting worse,” says Sen. Lois Wolk, D-Davis, the author of the legislation.

“New investors are farming land that has never been farmed, planting permanent crops such as almond orchards and tapping into already overdrafted aquifers to support these new, significant water demands,” Ms. Wolk says. “Unmitigated, rapid groundwater withdrawals are causing the wells of current homeowners, communities and farmers to go dry.”

Groundwater extraction through new and deeper drilling has sharply increased across the Central Valley and much of the rest of the state during the drought, including in water basins critically overdrafted by established water demands.

At least 11 of the 21 critically overdrafted water basins are in the Central Valley, essentially stretching from the Tehachapi Mountains in southern Kern County to the California Delta near Stockton:

• Eastern San Joaquin

• Chowchilla

• Madera

• Kings

• Kaweah

• Tulare Lake

• Tule

• Kern County

• Merced

• Delta-Mendota

• Westside

Such rapid water extraction can cause aquifer collapse and saltwater contamination to groundwater near the coast, risking permanent damage to the groundwater supplies of existing farmers and communities.

This can force residents and farmers to dig new or deeper wells at great personal expense, Ms. Wolk says. Aqueducts and roads are cracking as the actual surface of the land drops not by inches but by several feet as aquifers collapse due to overdraft.

“Until we can figure out how to manage this problem and these aquifers sustainably we need to stop new or deeper drilling in already critically overdrafted water basins,” she says.

Senate Bill 1317, also known as the Aquifer Protection Act, would protect aquifers by requiring cities and counties overlying high and medium priority basins to apply conditions to permits for new wells by July 1, 2018. Local governments that have enacted their own measures to protect aquifers would be exempt from this requirement as would wells yielding small amounts of water, or replacement wells.

SB 1317 also prohibits drilling new wells in 21 critically overdrafted groundwater basins and basins that are in probationary status.

Jamie Coston, a resident of Oakdale in Stanislaus County testified Tuesday in support of the bill, expressing concern with groundwater overdraft in and around Oakdale.

“Our county is at a critical point regarding groundwater,” Mr. Coston said. “Over 500 deep wells have been put into service in a drought situation and over 60 of those have been in east Oakdale. Over 40,000 acres of new trees have been planted in the east Oakdale area. Grasslands that have never been farmed have now been turned into nut-tree farms, which can’t be fallowed during drought. Large-scale corporate farming has infused the area. If we don’t protect our groundwater, this whole valley will be a desert.”

Jay Ziegler, director of external affairs and policy with the Nature Conservancy, also testified in support of SB 1317.

“The effects of the continuing rush to develop wells across California are becoming increasingly clear. Over-pumping of groundwater where there is little to no recharge causes permanent damage to basins, including subsidence that impacts aquifers and ultimately puts infrastructure like bridges roads, aqueducts and flood structures at risk,” he said. “In some places we see stream flows in our rivers declining due to overdrafting of groundwater, and other impacts on groundwater dependent ecosystems.”

Also testifying in support of the bill was Deborah Ores, an attorney and legislative advocate with the Community Water Center of Sacramento.

“If the current trend continues this will result in costly repairs and delays for water deliveries. The unchecked pumping can also lead to seawater intrusion, contaminating groundwater supply and leaving many communities throughout the state without a reliable source of clean, safe, and affordable drinking water,” Ms. Ores said. “Residents on private wells are the most impacted. Once their well runs dry or the water becomes contaminated, they are forced to rely on bottled and tanked water to drink, prepare food, and for sanitary purposes. Residents on small public water systems are also harmed when the system cannot afford to drill a new well or treat the contaminated water for their customers.”

SB 1317 will next be heard by the Senate Committee on Governance and Finance.

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