12 Jul 2010

Statewide Groundwater Regulation?

Given the sorry state of surface water regulation, I [Damian] am not sure statewide groundwater regulation will produce many benefits. I really am not sure. Peter Gleick is probably right that there will always be areas of overdraft as long as pumping levels are not capped.

The massive overdraft in the southern San Joaquin Valley stirs up the most interest in statewide regulation. However, the local districts are not sitting idly by while their users mine the water underneath. They have no authority to cap their farmers' wells, but they do affect the water table with conjunctive use programs, etc. Furthermore, in talking with West Kern Water District (south-western corner of the valley) for example, although the groundwater is not regulated, they have MOUs with neighboring districts which prohibit taking "too much."

Valley of the Moon Water District, an urban supplier in Sonoma County, said something similar. The Sonoma basin is not adjudicated, and the users prefer it that way. I asked, naively, why not adjudicate to perfect the rights to the source, and Krishna Kumar's (the GM) response was quite insightful - the legal hassle and cost of moving to an adjudicated aquifer is large, and their current goodwill towards each other is enough to prevent pernicious pumping.

So, despite a lack of statewide regulation, many local agencies do manage their groundwater. Clearly, they understand that it is better to pump from 300 feet than 400 feet as they bear the costs of falling water tables. If they prefer to live in a world where pumping is costly and mostly unrestricted, why should we say otherwise? Put differently, given that many sets of users in the state have developed ways of managing groundwater without state intrusion, why should we think that the San Joaquin Valley is any different? Could it be that overdraft is slightly beneficial for the Valley? It most certainly leads to grant money and gives credibility to the call for more surface supplies...

Another cost associated with statewide regulation - In passing a cap, the legislature may give landowners gifts. In years past, falling groundwater tables led sympathetic politicians to build massive surface projects to ameliorate the farmers' "woes". I cannot imagine the legislature imposing a cap without some giveaways to landowners, and if they include new surface storage, that would most certainly be a waste.

The benefits I see from a cap on groundwater use would be more efficient use of water. Suppose the state did impose a cap on each basin that is not currently capped. (The costs of establishing the cap would be very high and there would be many winners and losers - let's ignore this massive issue for now). If some farmers can no longer pump as much as they want, it would push up prices of surface water and / or lead to land fallowing. Put simply - reduce groundwater availability, increase the price of water. Higher prices usually eventually lead to more efficient use. Water markets may also get a kick in the pants. The interplay with water markets I think has the most potential for good,

Bottom Line: I am less convinced today that state-imposed groundwater caps are the right way to go than I was a couple years back...


  1. The State should jump in only as a last resort, and in cases of total dysfunction at the local level. The varying climates, cropping patterns, geologies, and local attitudes are so diverse across California, a ham handed and expensive statewide regulatory framework would seem to answer very little and cause at least some harm. It might be possible for the State Water Board to hold that groundwater users had an affirmative duty to establish that theirs was indeed a beneficial use; and that adjacent landowners could challenge them on the basis of over-pumping, damage to the aquifer, etc. The outcome (aside from a few fisticuffs, and a few wealthier lawyers) could well be the formation of many more local groundwater districts, which would save both money and water for the parties involved.
    Dream on, Kurtz.

  2. Local control has proven to be the best management system and it certainly applies to groundwater. The comments in this blog support this approach. The potential of producing less crops as a result of land fallowing will affect all consumers as market prices respond to the economics of supply and demand.

    Mike Wade
    California Farm Water Coalition

  3. @Mike -- does this mean that locals should also be allowed to prohibit surface water exports?

  4. There's a dynamic that this discussion has missed so far. Unregulated excessive pumping that leads to overdraft then leads to cries by the culprits to build new dams and reservoirs which can be used in good times to replenish the overdraft. Problem is those dams and reservoirs are at least in part paid for by the taxpayers. Better that we just live within our means and reduce usage as supplies dwindle.

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  6. Right Jerry - the Friant region went through this before - gw levels were dropping fast, and so surface water came in from Millerton Lake. It happened in AZ as well with the Central AZ Project.

    For Mike Wade - I had a nice chat with Mike Henry yesterday (prompting this post) and we discussed the problems with instituting a cap on gw. Hypothetically, given that the legislature was thinking hard about a cap, how would you advise them to grant the allocations?

  7. Duh, aren't the groundwater basins in agricultural areas replenishing themselves after all the rainfall this year? Anybody have any info on this?

    This would seem to be a textbook case of economist Ronald Coase's theorem that two parties will agree to constraints to preserve mutual interest.


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