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Bill Would Ban New Wells in Parts of California

By Ian James

June 6, 2016

Original story:

Two years ago, California adopted historic legislation to move toward managing the state’s aquifers, many of which are declining rapidly due to overpumping.

But local agencies are being given a long grace period to meet the requirements of the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act – in many cases until 2022 to adopt plans for sustainable water use, and an additional 20 years to bring their aquifers into balance.

Despite the law, thousands of new wells have been drilled across California and groundwater levels have continued dropping in many areas.

A bill approved by the state Senate on Thursday would clamp down by prohibiting the drilling of most new wells in places where aquifers are in “critical overdraft,” and by requiring cities and counties in other areas to start requiring permits to put checks on the proliferation of wells.

“There seems to be a real gold rush – or a water rush – to dig as many wells as possible before the deadline of 2022, at which point there will be a groundwater association in place to regulate or control that,” said Sen. Lois Wolk, D-Davis, who introduced the bill. Without the legislation, she predicted that more and more wells will be dug in order to avoid restrictions during the next several years.

The 2014 groundwater law applies to 127 groundwater basins that state officials have deemed high- or medium-priority. In all of those areas, Wolk’s legislation calls for cities and counties to start requiring permits for well-drilling by January 2018. Applicants would need to show that more pumping wouldn’t have detrimental effects.

The bill, SB 1317, would ban most new wells in 21 basins that state officials have classified as “critically overdrafted.” Those basins, which range from Merced to Kern County to the Borrego Valley, have been given until 2020 to adopt their 20-year plans for achieving sustainable management – defined as managing groundwater in ways that avoid problems such as chronic declines or saltwater intrusion.

“It applies to brand new wells, new straws that are being placed into the groundwater in aquifers that we know are in critical condition. Why would you do that? Why would anybody want to do that?” Wolk said in a telephone interview. “Areas that we know have critical water supply issues really do have to be sure and verify that it’s safe to put more straws in the ground.”

Billy Napier and Thomas Clements drill an agricultural

Billy Napier and Thomas Clements drill an agricultural well in Tulare County in 2015. Well drillers have been busy replacing wells that have gone dry in the San Joaquin Valley. (Photo: Ian James/The Desert Sun)

The ban would not apply to the drilling of wells for drinking water. Counties that have adopted ordinances to manage aquifers would also be exempt.

Members of the Senate voted 21-17 to approve the bill, and it’s headed next to the Assembly.

The legislation has been opposed by a variety of organizations, such as the Agricultural Council of California, the Association of California Water Agencies and the California Building Industry Association.

But Wolk said even the bill’s opponents have acknowledged that unlimited well-drilling is a problem.

“I’m waiting for their suggestions,” she said. “The status quo is not acceptable.”

The five-year drought has multiplied the stresses on aquifers across California, pushing groundwater levels to record lows in many parts of the state.

In the San Joaquin Valley, farms have been pumping heavily to make up for the lack of surface water, and thousands of people in rural communities have been left with dry wells, forcing them to install water tanks and rely on deliveries from tanker trucks.

In the Coachella Valley, state regulators have listed three aquifer sub-basins – Indio, Mission Creek and San Gorgonio Pass – as being “medium” priority. A fourth groundwater sub-basin, Desert Hot Springs, is classified by the state as being a relatively lower priority.

Several local agencies – including the Coachella Valley Water District, the Desert Water Agency, the Indio Water Authority and Coachella Water Authority – have filed notices with the state to begin the process of becoming the designated groundwater agencies for the areas where they provide water.

The drought has also prompted greater awareness about the longstanding lack of access to clean drinking water in many poor rural communities.

One new bill passed by the Senate, SB 1318, is intended to remedy the problem by requiring Local Agency Formation Commissions to recommend plans for bringing water or sewage systems to disadvantaged communities. The bill, also introduced by Wolk, would add to legislation approved last year that gave the state new authority to require the consolidation of water systems when communities have unsafe drinking water.

The latest measure is aimed at pressing agencies to develop plans to serve unincorporated communities such as the trailer parks that dot the farmland of the eastern Coachella Valley.

In parts of Thermal, for instance, the tap water is tainted with hazardous contaminants such as naturally occurring arsenic. For years, many people have been buying bottled water.

The bill would require local agencies to review the adequacy of water and wastewater systems and collect information about communities that need help.

“It would create a roadmap for finally getting water and wastewater services to hundreds of communities in California,” said Phoebe Seaton, co-director of Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability, an organization backing the measure.

Wolk said it’s an embarrassment that California, despite its wealth, has so many people still living without clean, safe drinking water.

“There are a lot of different reasons, but the fact is many of these communities are poor and underserved and disadvantaged, and it’s time to put an end to that,” Wolk said. “We have to come up with a plan to take care of them, and there is some state money available for that now.”

A separate measure approved by the Assembly this week would use 10 percent of fines collected by the California Environmental Protection Agency to pay for environmental projects in disadvantaged communities. The bill, AB 2781, was introduced by Assemblymember Eduardo Garcia, D-Coachella.

“I know first-hand that many of our communities continue to be disproportionately burdened by pollution,” Garcia said in a statement. He said creating a fund for disadvantaged communities would help direct money to projects in areas with the greatest needs.

Ian James writes about water and the environment for The Desert Sun. Email: Twitter: @TDSIanJames


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