In agricultural areas of Calfornia’s Central Valley, a well-drilling frenzy has accelerated over the past year as growers turn to pumping more groundwater during the drought, even as the Drop in water levels leaves hundreds of nearby homes with dry wells.
Counties have continued to freely issue well drilling permits since California passed landmark legislation, the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act of 2014, which aims to address the problem of overpumping over the next two decades. to preserve groundwater.
Some state lawmakers are now backing a bill they say would strengthen oversight and curb the well-drilling frenzy by requiring permit review for new wells by the same local agencies charged with groundwater management.
“It just makes sense that the agency tasked with trying to get a sustainable return from pumping groundwater could weigh in on new wells entering that same aquifer that they’re trying to monitor,” said Steve, a member of the Democratic Assembly. Bennett of Ventura, who introduced the bill.
As the system stands, Bennett said, counties signed permits and farm landowners “rushed to get their wells in” before pumping limits went into effect.
“I think the rush to drill more wells will continue, if not accelerate, if we don’t have that,” Bennett said.
The bill, AB 2201, was approved on April 26 by the Assembly’s Water, Parks and Wildlife Committee, and is then going through the Appropriations Committee.
The bill would require so-called groundwater sustainability agencies, which were created under the 2014 law, to weigh in on well permit applications.
Governor Gavin Newsom issued a drought ordinance in March that also prohibits local governments from granting permits to drill wells if it would be “inconsistent” with the region’s groundwater management plan. Newsom’s order has slowed the drilling of new wells in parts of the San Joaquin Valley.
But the ordinance only brings temporary measures during the drought, and supporters of the bill argue that a similar permanent change is needed to protect vulnerable communities before more wells go dry.
The legislation would prohibit a local government from approving a well permit unless it obtains written verification from the groundwater sustainability agency that the proposed well is “compatible” with the area’s management plan. Groundwater basins that the state deems to be high or medium priority would be subject to this requirement.
The bill would require agencies to post a notice of every well permit application online and give the public 30 days to comment. There would be an exemption for domestic wells or wells that provide drinking water.
Bennett said the fundamental problem is that new wells have been approved without analysis of how pumping will affect other wells in nearby communities.
“Disadvantaged communities need elected officials to stand up for them,” Bennett said.
Those who spoke in favor at the committee meeting included Ruth Martinez, from the Ducor community in Tulare County.
Martinez said his community of about 600 people, mostly Latino farm workers, had long suffered from nitrate contamination in their drinking water, which meant they couldn’t safely use tap water. security. In 2016, the community received a $1.8 million state grant and drilled a deeper well, nearly 2,000 feet deep, which provided drinking water.
But last year a new agricultural well was drilled opposite their well, which she says threatens the community’s water supply.
“The county approved this new well without thinking about the impact on our community,” Martinez told lawmakers.
If the legislation had been in place, Martinez said, the local groundwater agency would have informed the community and could have rejected the permit application.
Martinez, a Ducor Community Services District board member, said residents were concerned about the pumping.
“I get a lot of calls and concerns from families about low pressure and no water coming from our faucets,” Martinez said. “Our brand new water is failing because the county failed to protect us.”
Supporters of the bill include the group Community Water Center.
“It is absolutely imperative that we connect and bridge the gap between land use permitting decisions and sustainable groundwater management,” said Kyle Jones, the group’s policy director.
For groundwater management to succeed, he said, the state should stop the proliferation of new agricultural wells next to drinking water wells.
The bill is opposed by groups representing the agricultural industry.
Brenda Bass of the California Chamber of Commerce said the bill would “create a new licensing regime for groundwater wells that will negatively impact agricultural businesses” and food production.
Much of California’s water, about 80% of the diverted and pumped supply, goes to agriculture in a typical year, according to state data. The farmlands of the Central Valley produce almonds, pistachios, fruits and vegetables, and also supply large dairies.
Danny Merkley, director of water resources for the California Farm Bureau, said he believes the bill conflicts with the “locally driven” approach that defined the Groundwater Act of 2014 and that it is “premature”.
The new requirements of Newsom’s executive order should be given some time to materialize “so that we can identify the issues and refine them,” Merkley said, before considering permanent legislation.
Water supplies that farms have long relied on, delivered through canals in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, have been reduced during the drought. Producers have traditionally turned to more groundwater pumping during dry spells, and aquifer levels in the Central Valley have declined for decades.
With climate change bringing warmer temperatures and intensifying droughts, pressures on limited groundwater supplies continue to increase.
The 2014 law is expected to eventually impose pumping limits that force producers to leave some farmland dry and unplanted.
NASA satellite measurements have documented the depletion of vast amounts of water over the past two decades. So much water has been pulled from aquifers in the San Joaquin Valley that the land is sinking as clay soils crumble, a problem that has damaged canals and cracked roads.
In the Tulare Basin, the ground is sinking at a rate of about one foot per year.
According to statewide data, more than 3,900 domestic dry wells have been reported since 2013, and the number of dry wells has increased significantly over the past year. The state has received reports of 975 domestic wells going dry in 2021, many of them in agricultural areas of the Central Valley.
So far this year, 162 additional dry wells have been reported.
The State Department of Water Resources recently reviewed plans submitted by local groundwater agencies and told agricultural area agencies in the San Joaquin Valley that their plans are “incomplete” and will require modifications to make generalized risks of more wells drying up, as well as other problems.
“We have a real problem in California with the water issue,” Bennett said. “We have a disconnect between those who manage the basin for sustainable yield and those who approve the drilling of new wells at the same time.”
Bennett said he had been considering whether the issue needed to be resolved for some time and decided to introduce the bill after reading an article in the Los Angeles Times examining the well-drilling frenzy in the Valley of San Joaquín. The Times analysis found that more than 6,200 agricultural wells have been drilled in the valley since the Groundwater Act was passed in 2014.
“I think that tipped the scales for me to say, ‘We’re going to do it this year,'” Bennett said.
He introduced the bill in January, and it has since been amended.
Because the bill faces opposition from farm groups, Bennett said he expects a “huge battle” to try to pass it.
Fran Pavley, a former state senator who helped draft the 2014 law, said the bill was a needed update.
“Can you allow an unlimited number of new wells to be added? said Pavley, who is now director of environmental policy at the University of Southern California’s Schwarzenegger Institute for State and Global Policy.
“There needs to be additional oversight at the local level,” Pavley said. “We are still in a race to the bottom.”
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New bill aims to curb well-drilling frenzy on California farms (2022, May 10)
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