Monday, May 18, 2009

Groundwater Management in California

The NY Times ran an article last week about groundwater use in the Central Valley of California. The article was mentioned on Inkstain, Aquafornia, and On the Public Record, but I just couldn't resist throwing my two cents in as well because this is one of my favorite issues.

California may earn the distinction of having less regulation of groundwater use than even Texas, which still follows the absolute ownership rule - the most permissive legal regime governing groundwater. Texas is at least in the process of developing regional planning documents to guide local agencies that presumably "regulate" access to groundwater in the state (there is plenty of debate about how effective those efforts are or are likely to be). California similarly has only local control of groundwater resources and those efforts range from, basically nothing, to fully adjudicated groundwater basins where rights to groundwater are quantified, prioritized, transferable and for the most part fully-regulated. But the adjudicated basins are primarily in urbanized Southern California. This report from the CA Dept. of Water Resources has a map showing what management regime is in place in different areas of the state (pdf file, about 2.6 mb; it's 10 years old, so not the most current). The areas with little or no management of groundwater are in the main farming areas of the state - the Central Valley, in particular.

The article notes that the state has been making noises recently about actually collecting some data on groundwater use throughout the state - most pumping is not metered in any way and those relying on groundwater consider metering the first step in limiting their "property rights" in groundwater (see my previous post). As the farmer quoted in the NYT story says:
“I don’t want the government to come in and dictate to us, ‘This is all the water you can use on your own land,’ ” said Mr. Watte, 57. “We would resist that to our dying day.”

Strong words there. Of course if they were to run out of groundwater they would surely be clamoring for someone (the government, perhaps?) to come to their rescue by spending tax dollars to bring in a new supply of water. We know what that is like in Arizona, where we were racing to the bottom of our aquifers in the central parts of the state back in the 60s when the feds finally came through with approval of the Central Arizona Project (CAP) to bring Colorado River water in to rescue all the farms and cities from a certain fate. But ... it turned out that the feds were carrying a stick along with the carrot of new water. They insisted that Arizona clean up its act on groundwater regulation by setting some limits on pumping, collecting data on how much pumping was occurring, and creating quantified, transferable rights in groundwater. If we didn't do that, funding for the CAP just might dry up - along with our economy. So the state enacted the Groundwater Management Act of 1980 that imposed fairly stringent regulation of groundwater pumping in the areas where overdraft was most severe.

I'd guess that the most likely reason they have been able to resist more significant regulation of groundwater in California is because they only rely on the stuff when the surface water situation is dire - like it is now. If groundwater is your primary or only source of water (as it was in much of Arizona), the pressure to take action is much stronger. But the California farmers (in the Central Valley at least) have been supplied for the most part with ample surface water from the Central Valley Project, State Water Project, and other large water delivery systems that convey surface water from where it is to where it is needed. When surface water is unavailable or limited, the farmers most affected restart their pumps, and everyone wrings their hands over depletion of groundwater. When surface water supplies return, the pumps turn off and water levels are allowed to recover. This removes the pressure to regulate groundwater use. The difference this time is that the surface water may be gone for good in some instances, so there will be more farmers relying on groundwater more of the time. This may lead to sustained pressure for action. And this being California, you can pretty much bet that action will be state action. The best those farmers can hope for is that they implement some kind of system that gives them something more closely resembling real property rights in groundwater - quantified, transferable, and sustainable. That way they will have both an incentive to manage the use of groundwater and more valuable property rights associated with their farmland, generally.

I'd suggest Mr. Watte start pricing flow meters pretty soon.


Anonymous said...

Texas does have groundwater regulation in the form of groundwater conservation districts that have the autority to permit wells, determine well spacing and restrict production among other means to protect the groundwater in Texas. All groundwater conservation districts in a given management area work together to protect the groundwater in that management area which general covers an entire aquifer. Texas is far ahead of most other states in protecting our groundwater.

Chris Brooks said...

The GW conservation districts in Texas have been given considerable autonomy over management of local aquifers, but because such entities tend to be dominated by those they regulate, their touch is often light. I think the Texas system of local management holds great promise if the managers can recognize the opportunities they have to ensure the long-term economic health of their communities, rather than just chasing short-term gains. I'd say declaring that Texas is far ahead of most other states in protecting GW might be a bit of a reach. At this point I would say that states where prior appropriation governs rights to GW are generally doing the best, but even that varies from state to state. NM is doing pretty well. CO is coming around and Utah seems to be in pretty good shape. But even those systems have their short-comings. The problem with groundwater is that it requires considerable oversight by some large entity (state) that can fund and collect the necessary data to understand the resource, but then you need a system that creates fungible property rights in the groundwater to encourage wise stewardship of the resource. Having local landowners mind the store is tempting but they cannot see the big picture or collect the data needed to do so. So they are likely to pump until things reach a critical point, then someone has to step in and bail them out. At least that's how I see it.