Despite California's reputation as an environmental policy leader, its regulation of groundwater extraction has long been among the weakest in the nation. That changed Tuesday, when California Governor Jerry Brown signed a package of three bills designed to regulate the pumping of water from underground aquifers.
While many observers say the rules are too little and too late to protect the state's rapidly depleting aquifers, the new laws are still a major shift in a long-deadlocked political battle.
"They don't solve all our problems, but they're a critical step in the right direction," says Jay Famiglietti, a hydrologist at the University of California, Irvine.
For many California farmers groundwater is an essential account: a strategic reserve for drought years, when shares of surface water shrink. Aquifers provide 30 to 40 percent of the state's water supply in normal years but close to 60 percent in drought years.
That reserve allows California's Central Valley to consistently produce a hefty share of the nation's fruits and vegetables—more than 300 different crops all told, ranging from pomegranates to almonds to asparagus to tomatoes.
But since the 1920s, when improvements in electric motors first allowed widespread groundwater pumping, the state's landowners have been making large withdrawals from their underground accounts. Recent deep and extended droughts, including the current one, have worsened the situation.
The state's groundwater accounts are now seriously overdrawn. On the edges of the Central Valley, where aquifers are relatively shallow, municipal wells are running dry, forcing small towns to import water at excruciatingly high prices. Chronic overpumping has led to widespread land subsidence in the valley, with some places sinking more than 30 feet in recent decades. Many groundwater-fed surface streams have been depleted, threatening the species that depend on them.
But in most cases California landowners can still drill water wells as often and as deeply as they can afford, without permission from government agencies or neighbors. With few exceptions, users are not required to report how much they pump, and public access to drilling records is highly restricted.
Over the past decade NASA satellite data analyzed by Famiglietti and his colleagues have helped to close that information gap. The research has shown that Central Valley farmers are withdrawing groundwater far faster than rain and snowmelt can trickle through soil and rock layers to recharge aquifers.
"We've turned a renewable resource into a nonrenewable resource," says Peter Gleick, president of the Pacific Institute. "Whoever has the most money, the deepest wells, and the strongest pumps has been able to take this public good and turn it into a private commodity."
Drought Clarifies Matters
For many years California's powerful agricultural lobby resisted any and all legislative attempts to regulate groundwater withdrawals. The depth and length of the current drought, however, combined with the state's ever growing demand for water, led to new and broader support for reform.
The bills signed Tuesday, which take effect in January, give local agencies the power to restrict groundwater pumping, shut down wells, and impose fines and penalties on resistant landowners. They direct state agencies to oversee groundwater sustainability plans developed by local agencies, and authorize them to step in if local actions aren't sufficient.
But the new laws give local agencies five to seven years to develop those groundwater plans, and until 2040 to implement them—a "rather languid" schedule in a time of crisis, according to Richard Frank, a professor of environmental law at the University of California, Davis. Frank also criticizes a clause that prohibits public disclosure of personal information related to groundwater extraction, a caveat that he says could be broadened to keep basic pumping data under wraps.
And while the laws do bring California's groundwater management goals roughly in line with those of other western states, the West's policies still lag behind Australia's, where groundwater management plans must reserve water for the environment.
"California and the rest of the West are really ignoring groundwater's environmental role," says Rebecca Nelson, an Australian researcher who leads the Comparative Groundwater Law and Policy Program at Stanford University.
As the drought in California continues, and its economic and environmental pain increases, it's increasingly obvious that legislation alone can't solve the state's water crisis. "We really need two things," says Gleick. "We need smart monitoring and management of groundwater. And we need some rain."
Follow Michelle Nijhuis on Twitter.