When the California Legislature put together its big water package in 2009, the one that paved the way for the Bay Delta Conservation Plan and included an $11 billion water bond about which lawmakers are now having second thoughts, state Sen. Fran Pavley put forth what she thought was a modest proposal.
She thought that, since groundwater accounts for more than a third of California's water usage, it might be a good idea to take inventory. Such an inventory would require sending people out into the field to measure well depths and collect pumping data.
The response was swift and furious and evoked images of farmers standing in front of their wells, pitchforks or shotguns in hand, to prevent anyone from the government from coming onto their land to inspect their water wells.
Pavley, D-Agoura Hills, had to back off the idea, but she remains perplexed about how California will ever be able to assess all its water issues without first obtaining reliable data about its groundwater basins. "It's like trying to get a handle on your finances," she told me, "but you're not allowed to know how much money you have in the bank."
Five years later, driven by drought and regional groundwater crises, the thinking is beginning to change. Many people, including high-level officials in Gov. Jerry Brown 's administration, are taking a fresh look at how best to manage the vast amount of water stored where no one can see it.
"If you have less ability to import water," said Pavley, who is chairwoman of the Senate Natural Resources and Water Committee, "you'd better pay attention to your groundwater." The enlightenment is being driven by scarcity and crises.
Dozens of small communities across the state are without safe drinking water because their wells have become contaminated.
In Paso Robles, an explosion of new vineyards has caused the level of the groundwater basin to drop so quickly that some wells have gone dry.
In the Central Valley, the U.S. Geological Survey reported last year, groundwater basins have become so depleted that 1,200 square miles of land are sinking, in some areas by nearly a foot a year.
In the coastal agricultural regions of the Oxnard Plain and the Salinas Valley, seawater intrusion into freshwater aquifers remains a serious concern. As the Ventura County Star reported over the weekend, pumpers on the Oxnard Plain are taking about 25,000 more acre-feet from the basin each year than can be sustainably withdrawn.
In Los Angeles, the Department of Water and Power is making plans to spend up to $900 million to build and operate treatment facilities to clean more than 100,000 acre-feet per year of contaminated groundwater in the San Fernando Basin, as part of a long-term strategy to reduce by half its reliance on imports from the State Water Project.
A Water Action Plan finalized this winter by the Brown administration calls for "a systematic evaluation of major groundwater basins to determine sustainable yield and overdraft status" and proposes legislation to protect basins and give state officials greater authority to force regional entities to adopt sensible, sustainable policies.
In his State of the State address in January, Brown referred to that approach as "serious groundwater management." As the state's most severe drought continues — albeit with welcome, but insufficient, relief forecast to arrive in the next several days — the striking visual images are satellite photos of a spotty Sierra Nevada snowpack and photographs of parched ground covering acres of once-abundant reservoirs that have shrunk to relative puddles.