Close to Home: Busting the myth of limitless groundwater
Facing another drought year and the reality that inadequate groundwater management is leading to a race to the bottom, on Oct. 4, the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors took a critical step toward sustainable water management by placing a temporary pause on issuance of new well permits.
The supervisors deserve credit for recognizing that groundwater is not limitless, and that the health of communities, rivers and local economies depend on sustainable and equitable management. Over the next six months, while the pause is in place, the county will develop science-based rules to govern groundwater well permits to ensure impacts of pumping on neighboring streams and downstream users are accounted for and addressed.
All Sonoma County residents have a stake in improving groundwater management. This is the county’s chance to change course and ensure we are better prepared for a warmer future.
During the current drought, California is facing the long-term limits of our water resources. States, including California, are discussing how to reduce Colorado River water use to a sustainable level, and vast regions of Central and Northern California face severely overtapped groundwater supplies.
California law has long maintained a fictional distinction between regulated diversions from rivers and lakes, and unregulated groundwater pumping. The problem is that nature does not make this distinction. In much of California, groundwater pumping simply sucks water out of rivers from below, through their gravel beds. In some places, excessive groundwater pumping literally causes rivers to run dry.
State law regulates diversions from rivers and lakes. California’s surface waters are owned by the public and agencies have a “public trust” responsibility to protect them. A 2018 court ruling makes it clear that this protection extends to groundwater as well — in locations where rivers and groundwater are clearly connected. The Russian River is one of those places.
The state Water Resources Control Board has ordered hundreds of Sonoma County water users to stop diverting from the Russian River because of inadequate flows during the drought. Meanwhile, the county has issued hundreds of permits for new wells, without analyzing whether increased groundwater pumping would further reduce river flows.
In addition to harming wildlife and recreation, uncontrolled groundwater pumping could result in even more limits on existing water users. Unregulated groundwater pumping allows new well owners to capture river flows that their neighbors have been relying on for decades.
New wells also threaten the supplies of groundwater-dependent cities and farms by worsening groundwater overdraft and increasing the risk that existing wells will run dry.
Inadequate groundwater management has far-reaching impacts. This summer, the North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board issued a notice urging caution as a result of growing toxic algae — also known as cyanobacteria — in the Russian River. The notice says these algae blooms “are a threat to human health, especially children and can be fatal to dogs playing In the water.” Low river flows are linked with these dangerous blooms.
Low flows also threaten the survival of the Russian River’s endangered coho salmon. Last year, fewer than a hundred adult coho were counted in the river, compared with a federal goal of 10,000 fish.
Unregulated groundwater pumping can worsen conditions for public health and salmon. And given the importance of river-based tourism, unregulated groundwater pumping represents a long-term risk to the regional economy.
Inadequate groundwater management is not unique to Sonoma County. Eventually, state law and dry wells will force many California counties to confront unsustainable groundwater pumping. Some communities may wait for disastrous impacts. But given the risks, Sonoma County is wise to begin acting now.
The California Coastkeeper Alliance filed suit to encourage Sonoma County to improve groundwater management under the public trust to protect other water users, public health and the environment. We congratulate the county for starting a process to analyze the impacts of new groundwater wells and design a permitting program to control those impacts. Residents would be wise to follow this process, knowing everyone in Sonoma County has a stake in the outcome.
Just as you cannot forever withdraw more from your bank account than you deposit, we cannot continue heedlessly pumping groundwater without risking dry wells and unacceptable impacts to public health, the environment and the economy. Sonoma County has a chance to blaze a path that other counties can follow toward sustainable groundwater management. We look forward to working with them to meet this challenge.
Sean Bothwell is executive director for California Coastkeeper Alliance. Don McEnhill is executive director of Russian Riverkeeper.
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