Report calls for statewide groundwater rules

California should adopt a statewide approach to regulating groundwater use, according a report released Thursday, July 10, by the California Water Foundation.

The report was prepared at the request of Gov. Jerry Brown. The current drought gives its message additional urgency as wells run dry in some areas, including western Calaveras County, and farmers pump more well water than ever as they lose access to surface water.

“Right now we have 50 families in the west county hauling water in pickup trucks,” Calaveras County Water District board member Don Stump said earlier in the week during comments to the Calaveras County Board of Supervisors.

The report recommends setting up a system in which local agencies would be given the power and funding to enforce groundwater rules. In Calaveras County, that could be Calaveras County Water District, which is already charged with managing county water resources.

The report reviews now-familiar facts: Even before the drought, aquifers in many parts of the state were steadily dropping as farms, homes and water utilities pumped out water faster than it was replenished.

One of those aquifers is the Eastern San Joaquin Sub-basin, an enormous pool of underground water that lies beneath most of San Joaquin County and the eastern part of Calaveras County, stretching to downtown Valley Springs.

Because the aquifer is one big pool, that means that pumping in San Joaquin County can lower water levels in western Calaveras County, possibly causing well failures.

Brown’s Drought Task Force, meanwhile, was in the Mother Lode Friday, meeting with local water agency officials. Among other things, state representatives asked for data on wells and groundwater.

At the same time, someone is conducting research to assess the best methods to marshal public support for groundwater regulation. A member of the Enterprise news staff last week received an evening call at home from a firm conducting a survey on groundwater.

The poll worker asking the questions said he did not know who commissioned the survey. The questions he asked included such things as whether the respondent considers groundwater private property or a resource held in common, and the respondent’s views on placing water meters on private wells. The poll taker asked the respondent to rate various arguments on whether they would persuade him to support statewide groundwater regulation.

Local water agency officials admit that they don’t relish the idea of being tapped by state authorities to police groundwater.

“They come up with a plan and then we get to be the lucky enforcers,” said Calaveras County Water District Director Jeff Davidson. “It is going to be particularly hard on the rural counties.”

Davidson noted that for years, CCWD has been wrestling with the issue of failing wells and dropping groundwater tables. In one case, the district provided surface water to an entire neighborhood after wells there failed.

Davidson’s Valley Springs-area district has been particularly impacted because it includes the bulk of the areas that are part of the Eastern San Joaquin Sub-basin.

But many Calaveras residents who depend on wells are scattered across rural areas where it would not be financially viable to lay the pipes for conventional water systems, Davidson said.

Another alternative would be so-called “conjunctive use” projects in which surplus river water is taken in wet years and pumped underground to recharge the aquifer. Davidson said that a proposal now in the California Legislature to designate 37 miles of the Mokelumne River as “wild and scenic” jeopardizes such plans because it would put the river’s waters off limits.

Without conjunctive use projects to recharge groundwater or some way to pipe in water from a utility, many Calaveras residents will continue to depend on wells. And that means it is important to manage groundwater to prevent those wells from failing, Davidson said.

“It is one of those things that everybody knows needs to be done, but who is going to be the first person to tell a farmer we need to put a meter on your well?” he said. “That is going to have to be a brave son of a (gun).”

​Contact Dana M. Nichols at dana.calent@gmail.com or call 498-2052.

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