Legislation - Policy

California lawmakers reject proposal to curb well-drilling where nearby wells could run dry

A worker places gravel around a newly drilled water well at a home in Fresno County in 2023. (Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

Over the past several years, California’s water managers have seen a pattern emerge in farming areas of the Central Valley: Even as declining groundwater levels have left thousands of residents with dry wells and caused the ground to sink, counties have continued granting permits for agricultural landowners to drill new wells and pump even more water.

A bill that was sponsored by the California Department of Water Resources sought to address these problems by prohibiting new high-capacity wells within a quarter-mile of a drinking water well or in areas where the land has been sinking because of overpumping.

Despite support from Gov. Gavin Newsom’s administration, the measure was narrowly rejected in the Senate last week after encountering opposition from the agriculture industry, business groups, local governments and water agencies.

The opposing organizations — which included the California Chamber of Commerce, the California Farm Bureau Federation and more than 30 other groups representing growers and water suppliers — said the bill was “too restrictive and may impede ways to achieve groundwater sustainability.”

Kristopher Anderson, a legislative advocate for the Assn. of California Water Agencies, told a Senate committee that the legislation would impose unworkable mandates and be “a blanket one-size-fits-all moratorium on approval of new wells that will harm local economies while failing to address these issues.”

After a brief debate, members of the Senate Natural Resources and Water Committee rejected the bill in a 5-4 vote.

“…there are “more straws going in while they’re trying to regulate the current straws.”

Assemblymember Steve Bennett (D-Ventura)

Assemblymember Steve Bennett (D-Ventura), who introduced the bill, said it was intended to address a significant loophole in California’s groundwater law. The Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, passed in 2014, created local agencies tasked with developing plans for curbing overpumping in many areas of the state, but left counties in charge of issuing permits for new wells.

That has led to a situation where there are “more straws going in while they’re trying to regulate the current straws,” he said.

In some rural communities, farmworkers and other residents have seen their wells run dry soon after growers drilled new wells to irrigate crops on nearby fields.

“Too many counties have been unwilling to protect the most vulnerable people’s wells because they don’t want to take on the most powerful people, who want to keep putting high-capacity wells in,” Bennett said. “We’ve been trying to get people to do something about it, and they refuse. It is the state’s responsibility to finally say, enough is enough.”

Parts of California have some of the fastest groundwater depletion rates in the world, and matters worsened during the last drought.

“The counties that are approving the most high-capacity wells are the ones that have the most land subsidence…”

Scientists have also found that crops’ water demands are growing in the San Joaquin Valley because of rising temperatures driven by climate change, which is worsening the long-term water deficit.

In parts of the valley, falling water levels have caused the ground to sink at rates of more than half a foot per year. Land subsidence has required costly repairs of levees, canals and other infrastructure, with public agencies footing the bill.

“The counties that are approving the most high-capacity wells are the ones that have the most land subsidence in California,” Bennett said, referring to counties such as Tulare, Fresno and Kern. “It just does not make sense that we keep […]

Full article: www.latimes.com

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