Last week, attorney, former councilmember and water project opponent Michael Harrington made a comment on the Vanguard: “Give it a few years, and I seriously think that Davis will pull out of the JPA surface water plant as being a worthless dinosaur that is costing ratepayers too much for too little. With climate change accelerating, there will be less and less summer water available from the Sacramento River.”
He continued, “The project was sold to the public as a solution for summer water demand. So give it five years, and maybe someone will run a shutdown initiative, and a one-time charge to ratepayers to buy our way out of the JPA debacle.”
He would later add, “With climate change, and the near certainty that the Sierra snowpack will melt much earlier than the usual mid-summer, and the Sacramento River is going to be low during future summers, and our summer water rights are very junior and pretty much worthless, the surface water plant will probably be viewed in a few years like Rancho Seco was.”
But, while opponents of the surface water project are increasingly arguing that we might not have summer water through the agreement with Conaway Ranch that was enacted in late 2010 and gave Davis and Woodland access to senior summer water rights, the state is looking at ways to limit the pumping of groundwater.
This weekend, Paul Rogers of the San Jose Mercury News reports, “In what would be the most significant water law passed in California in nearly 50 years, lawmakers in Sacramento are working with Gov. Jerry Brown on a landmark measure to regulate groundwater pumping for the first time.”
“Although landowners who want to divert water from reservoirs and rivers have been required to get a permit from the state since 1914, farmers and cities who tap underground aquifers — California’s largest water source — can pump as much as they want, when they want and with almost no oversight or limits,” he continues.
The result of this pumping has been to drop water tables dangerously low in places such as the San Joaquin Valley and Paso Robles.
The Mercury News reports, “Scientific studies show the ground is sinking in many hard-hit areas and that aquifers are at risk of running dry.”
“It’s like a shared bank account. But nobody ever has to balance the checkbook,” Lester Snow, former director of the state Department of Water Resources, told the paper. “We have based a large part of our economy on deficit spending of groundwater. It has to come to an end.”
California uses more groundwater than any other state. In fact, it relies on groundwater 40 percent of the time, but that spikes to 60 percent in dry years and it remains the only state without rules regulating it.
One of the bills is authored by Assemblymember Roger Dickinson and co-authored by Senator Fran Pavley.
Assemblymember Dickinson, back in May, explained that the bill would give local entities about six years in order to develop a sustainable groundwater management plan.
“A critical element of addressing the water challenges facing California involves ensuring a sustainable supply of groundwater,” Assemblymember Dickinson said. ”Over drafting our groundwater leads to subsidence and contamination; consequences we cannot afford.”
The bill addresses critical policy changes in order to achieve sustainable management of the state’s groundwater basins:
- The bill establishes key definitions that will guide sustainable groundwater management plans and programs, including the definition of sustainable groundwater.
- A.B. 1739 requires local land-use plans to take into consideration adopted groundwater sustainability plans and to assess the impact of land-use on groundwater resources.
- The bill focuses sustainable groundwater management on those basins which are at high or medium risk of overdraft
- The bill defines the components of a groundwater sustainability plan and it authorizes a variety of tools for local groundwater management entities to use in achieving sustainable groundwater levels.
- The bill sets forth a 50-year planning horizon, a planning period of 20 years, and requires plan updates every 5 years.
- The bill requires the inclusion of diverse interests in the community when developing and adopting the plan.
When UC Davis came out with the report on the drought, Assemblymember Dickinson issued a statement that their report underscores “the immediate necessity of taking legislative action that will manage groundwater on a sustainable basis.”
The Assemblymember added, “Despite the critical role groundwater plays in water supply for Californians, our state is the only state without comprehensive statewide groundwater management programs. I will continue to work with all stakeholders and my colleagues to achieve legislative solutions regarding our need to ensure the wise use of our groundwater resources in the future.”
What does this mean for Davis? It likely means that the city is not going to be able to count on a groundwater-only system.
Davis has already reported subsidence. According to a report from the California Department of Water Resources, “Other areas of California have experienced subsidence on the order of a total of 2 to 12 feet over the course of several decades. They include Lancaster, the Santa Clara Valley, Ventura, Davis, and more locally near Zamora in the Sacramento Valley. Subsidence typically occurs at slow rates ranging from fractions of an inch to as much as 3 inches per year.”
Under the legislation, “If local governments didn’t set up oversight systems or failed to show progress, state officials could step in and write and enforce the local rules.”
“Groundwater is a critical source of water for families, farms and businesses across the state,” Senator Pavley said. “And if we want it to be available in the future it needs to be managed sustainably.”
The Mercury News reports, “The governor has made Pavley’s legislation a top priority. But her bill, SB1168, is drawing opposition from the state’s main farm organization.”
“At some point in time there has to be some accountability, and we have to get a handle on how much we are pumping,” said Paul Wenger, president of the California Farm Bureau Federation, told the paper.
“But this is bad legislation and we oppose it. We’re afraid that if it passes, the unintended consequences are going to be huge. The financial impacts are going to be huge.”
The paper adds, “In dry times like the current three-year drought, when rain and snow aren’t available and reservoir levels are low, groundwater is vital, he said. One well on his farm is keeping his orchards alive during the drought, Wenger said.”
“We’re doing everything we can. We’re stretching out our water — we are just getting by,” he said. “But if we didn’t have access to groundwater, our trees would drop their leaves and slowly die.”
The paper adds, Mr. Wenger says the legislature should delay the law until next year for more study.
“We are talking about one of the most critical bills this Legislature will have seen for many years and we’ve got a month to work through it?” he said. “We feel like we’re getting rolled here.”
How this will end up impacting Davis remains to be seen.
—David M. Greenwald reporting