California Tracks Water-Well Drilling but Doesn’t Share the Data

Thursday, July 10, 2014

It’s been 65 years since California passed the common sense law that requires basic information be made public about water wells: where they’re drilled, how deep they go and the geological formations encountered. Every other Western state does that.

But two years after California started compiling water logs, it stopped making them available to the public.

State agencies can look at them, and so can people with permission from the well owner and folks doing environmental cleanup studies. But researchers, the general public and other interested parties cannot. Not even big research universities, creatures of the state supported with public funds, can see them. That kind of information is available to everyone online in Oregon, Idaho and Utah.

Despite repeated legislative efforts, the 800,000 documents collected by the state from drillers over 60 years remain what amounts to a trade secret—protection for the interests of farmers, drillers, water suppliers and, if you believe the most fearful among them, the Homeland. The price of secrecy is a state trying to tack together a coherent water policy in the middle of an epic drought without independent analysis of huge amounts of critical data.

Groundwater provides about 30-40% of the state’s total water supply, but California has no management plan. The state has avoided mandatory rationing of late partially by exhausting its reserve groundwater storage and ramping up its groundwater overdraft.

That’s a problem.

Over pumping already contributes to the Central Valley’s sinking floor and its potential impact on San Andreas seismic activity. The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) said in its 2009 report (pdf) on the six-fold increase in pumping of the giant Central Valley aquifer between 1962 and 2003 that, “Pumpage is physically possible to measure; yet in the Central Valley it is one of the least certain components of the entire water budget.”   

John Hofer, executive director of a state group representing well drillers, told the Sacramento Bee that “by and large, we are more amenable to making them [well logs] available.” Maybe. But politicians are not.

State Senator Fran Pavley (D-Agoura Hills) introduced a bill to make the water logs public in 2011. Governor Jerry Brown said it was too watered down and vetoed it. She made another run at it in 2012 and the legislation died on the Senate floor.

Senate consultant Dennis O’Connor wrote in his analysis of SB 1146, Pavley’s second bill, “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.”

Water logs don’t tell how much water is being pumped by a well. But O’Connor told KQED, “The data can help you connect the dots and create a three-dimensional picture of what’s going on underground. . . . You need to know the physical characteristics of a basin in order to effectively manage it.”

There may be more than a few farmers who aren’t anxious to have the state help them manage their water resources. Drillers could be anxious about legal exposure from some of their activities. Someone’s trade secrets may be exposed and others may feel their security could become compromised.

They are all safe, for now.   

–Ken Broder


To Learn More:

As Drought Persists, Frustration Mounts over Secrecy of California’s Well Drilling Logs (by Tom Knudson, Sacramento Bee)

New Bill Would Make Confidential Groundwater Info Public (by Jeremy Miller, KQED)

Central Valley Farmers Keep Drought Losses at $1.7 Billion by Overtaxing Groundwater (by Ken Broder, AllGov California)

Pumping Groundwater in Central Valley Could Cause Quakes in L.A. (by Ken Broder, AllGov California)

Analysis of Senate Bill 1146 in 2012 (Consultant Dennis O’Connor, Senate Committee on Natural Resources and Water)

Leave a comment