WOODLAND — With more than half of California now in exceptional drought, the Year of Groundwater is turning into the year of only groundwater.
On Thursday, Carl Hauge, former chief hydrologist for the state Department of Water Resources, discussed the past, present and future of groundwater, part of the fourth annual David K. Todd Distinguished Lecture series. A crowd of about 200 water experts, citizens, policymakers and scientists joined him in the lobby of the historic Hotel Woodland.
“In theory, there is no difference between theory and practice. In practice there is,” Hauge said to open his presentation, quoting All-Star Yankee catcher and humorist Yogi Berra.
California remains one of the only states without groundwater management policies — only recently has the state assessed where aquifers and wells are even being monitored, and while Yolo County grounds remain well-watered, the drought has stressed underground supplies in Southern California and elsewhere.
“So in practice, we’ve blown it,” Hauge said, pointing out that even states like Nevada and Arizona with groundwater management plans have not necessarily managed the water well.
California’s groundwater saga began in 1903, when the state Supreme Court declared the rights of an overlying landowner to extend to resources below ground. A decade later, percolating groundwater — water that trickles through the cracks and pores of dirt and rock, as opposed to subterranean streams — was left out of the new state water permitting process. That means anyone can dig a well and draw water from it without state approval, though local permits may be required and construction can be expensive.
“Groundwater is treated as commons,” Hague said. “Everyone uses it, no one manages it. There is no sense (of) a common future.”
That might change this legislative season. Earlier this week, two groundwater regulation bills joined forces as AB 1739, introduced by Assemblyman Roger Dickinson, D-Sacramento. The bill would require management plans for medium- and high-priority basins, like the Yolo Basin, while leaving direct enforcement to local agencies. Since the language remains controversial, it may not make it to the floor before the session closes in a month.
Without a history of regulation, data about groundwater management can be as scarce as surface water has been this summer.
“When I worked back in the Paleocene,” Hauge joked, “we didn’t have enough data then. We still don’t have enough data now.”
The state and other water interests have made attempts to address this problem, with numerous groundwater assessments released this year. On Tuesday, the Northern California Water Association published a review of Sacramento Valley’s groundwater by three Davis businesses — Macaulay Water Resources, West Yost Associates and Davids Engineering.
The report concluded that while groundwater pumping has increased with the drought, a lack of surface water is not the only stressor. A growing Sacramento population, increased planting of permanent crops like nut trees, and the use of previously non-irrigated land for agriculture have all contributed to about a 20 percent increase in pumping since 2000.
Summing up his talk, Hauge emphasized that groundwater cannot be managed alone: Policies must account for surface water as well.
“It’s the same resource; it needs the same code.”
— Reach Elizabeth Case at email@example.com or 530-747-8052. Follow her on Twitter at @elizabeth_case