California Finally Gathers Groundwater Data, but Won’t Reveal It

Wednesday, June 03, 2015

Californians, warned that their closely-monitored water usage must be slashed immediately or else, cut back 13.5% in April compared to the year before. That’s well shy of the 25% target, but far better than when Governor Brown asked for voluntary cutbacks in 2014 and got increases in some areas.

While residential users, who use about 10% of the state’s water, nervously wait for the mandatory limits to kick in, giant agribusinesses, small farmers, water districts and anyone with a well are only now coming under scrutiny, so to speak.  

After a century of water wars and water woes, California is belatedly taking a stab at understanding who is pumping out its diminishing groundwater and where. Four years of drought and the prospect that drought may be the new normal (pdf) have led the state to finally require that well operators account for their water usage.

As state Senate consultant Dennis O’Connor wrote in 2012:

“Farmers can't know how deep they need to drill their wells. Academics cannot develop sophisticated maps and models without the sponsorship of the government. Local community activists cannot gain the information they need to better protect drinking water quality of disadvantaged communities. The list goes on.” 

Unfortunately, O’Connor was writing an analysis of a failed legislative attempt to make water logs public. The logs record where wells are drilled, how deep they go and the geological formations encountered. Every other Western state does that except California.

Pumping information is priceless, but it won’t be made public, according to The Center for Investigative Reporting (CIR). Water agencies have won the same level of confidentiality about their pumping activities that the law accords residential and commercial users.

That 1997 law, passed six years after the media publicly shamed Silicon Valley water users during a drought, made the information private. “We’re going to finally regulate and monitor groundwater, and we’re going to keep it all secret,” James Wheaton, legal director of the Oakland-based Environmental Law Foundation, told CIR.  

The foundation is suing (pdf) the Central Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board over its policy of letting growers keep groundwater data secret. The lawsuit, filed in San Luis Obispo Superior Court, wants groundwater data about possible nitrate pollution from agriculture made public. The suit argues that the board’s refusal to force transparency violates the California Public Records Act and the Water Code. 

So, while residential and urban commercial users will be at the mercy of regulators, the agricultural sector that uses 80% of the water will continue to operate, at least partially, in the shadows.

The rest of the nation is, no doubt, grateful. According to the New York Times, “The average American consumes 300 gallons of California water each week by eating food that was produced there.” They do that mostly by consuming cow products.

Four glasses of milk (143 gallons) and 1.75 ounces of beef (86 gallons) top the list, which includes three Mandarin oranges (42.5 gallons), 16 almonds (15.3 gallons), 2 ounces of rice (15.1 gallons), a bowl of processed tomatoes (9.1 gallons), two slices of bread (6.4 gallons), an orange slice (6.2 gallons), a third of an egg (6 gallons), a third of a head of lettuce (4.1 gallons) and lots more.

Food prices nationwide have not yet felt the impact of California’s drought. Much of that has been temporarily shielded by reckless pumping of the aquifers, already diminished in capacity by widespread industrial pollution.

But by the end of this year, the state’s $45-billion agricultural industry will take a $2.7-billion hit, according to a study (pdf) from the University of California, Davis, Center for Watershed Sciences. Last year, the same group of researchers calculated a loss of $2.2 billion.

We’ll also probably know the drought’s effect on food prices nationwide, the pain felt by residential and commercial users, and the overall cost to the agricultural sector. But we won’t know how groundwater, which provides about 30-40% of the state’s total water supply, is being managed.

That’s confidential.

–Ken Broder


To Learn More:

California Won’t Identify Who’s Draining the State’s Groundwater (by Lance Williams and Katharine Mieszkowski, The Center for Investigative Reporting)

California Drought: Californians Cut Water Use 13.5 Percent in April, Shy of 25 Percent Target (by Paul Rogers and Lisa M. Krieger, San Jose Mercury News)

Your Contribution to the California Drought (by Larry Buchanan, Josh Keller and Haeyoun Park, New York Times) 

Drought-Plagued Farms Will Cost California $2.7 Billion This Year, Study Predicts (by Lydia O'Connor, Huffington Post)

California Tracks Water-Well Drilling but Doesn’t Share the Data (by Ken Broder, AllGov California)

California's New Normal? Recurring Drought: Addressing Winners and Losers (by Stephanie Pincetl and Terri S. Hogue, Local Environment) (pdf)

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