It’s not just reservoirs and aqueducts that are drying up in the state’s drought. Under the ground, aquifers that store water relied on by more than three-quarters of Californians are being over-pumped, often to such an extent that the earth above them sinks. Other states regulate pumping, or require local authorities to do it, to ensure that groundwater is managed sustainably and fairly. Here, though, regulations are so spotty that neighboring farmers often drill for the same water, subject to no agreements on how it is to be divvied up and no checks on over-pumping. It is as though they’re digging for gold instead of pumping what should be a renewable and sustainably managed public resource.
The fight over groundwater is so contentious that competing interests have for decades resisted any attempt to regulate it. Gov. Jerry Brown first recommended that lawmakers pass measures managing groundwater back in the 1970s, but to no avail.
Brown called for legislation again this year as part of his comprehensive Water Action Plan, and this time, given the severity of the drought, even the wariest water-rights owners have recognized that, without change, California’s groundwater could be pumped to depletion, causing aquifers to draw their water from lakes and wetlands, which would in turn damage sensitive habitats and reduce surface water available for human use, or destroying the aquifers themselves by drawing in saltwater or contaminants.
Salt Water Contamination
A new report released today by the Groundwater Voices Coalition says that groundwater resources in the Central Coast are seriously threatened by saltwater intrusion. Groundwater levels have declined as a result of several dry years and over-pumping, which has allowed seawater to contaminate the region’s underground water supply.
As seawater moves in, it causes severe water quality impacts, which can result in saline groundwater that is unsuitable for agricultural and community uses. Seawater intrusion also directly threatens the Central Coast’s economy, where many high-value, salt-sensitive crops, such as strawberries, are grown.
“The Central Coast area relies on groundwater for a greater percentage of its water supplies than any other region in the state,” said Lester Snow, executive director of the California Water Foundation. “As California faces one of the worst droughts in recorded history, we must consider ways to protect the Central Coast’s invaluable groundwater resource for the present and future health of its farms, cities and environment.”