The Mismanagement of California's Groundwater Supply

We all know California has been in some dire straits due to the ongoing drought. But despite the constant warnings about how bad it's getting -- I've sounded the occasional warning alarm myself by attempting to show how the drought's affecting the important issues like, say, your beer -- there's still a feeling that we're not in too much trouble. The faucet's still running, the government hasn't issued any official restrictions, beer's still on tap.

Which is why it's important that whenever news about the drought is released that we take a moment to look it over. Last week, the folks at UC Davis put together such a bit of news, by releasing a huge examination of what they call the "greatest water loss ever seen." Just how bad's the drought? Let us count the ways.

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Now in its third year, the drought is starting to have substantial long-term effects on the land and economy of the state. Here's some numbers they throw at us:

- Money is always a big concern when it comes to the state's agriculture, seeing as it's such a huge aspect of the economy. (California, actually, is the world's fifth largest supplier of food.) Because of the drought, the state has been losing $1.5 billion a year; $1 billion of that is from a loss of food that can't grow without water, while the other $500,000 is due to the cost of pumping in water. In all, that's three percent of the state's total agricultural sales that have disappeared.

- The employment issue is another concern. The vast fields of California need people to work them, but if the production is cut, the hours needed to be worked are likewise trimmed. Due to the loss of production, 17,100 seasonal and part-time jobs have been cut, which crunches into a farm unemployment number of 3.8 percent.

- Take into account the money not being spent due to the loss of jobs (and, therefore, workers not having money to spend), and you're talking a $2.2 billion a year hit to the California economy due to the drought.

- Another way to examine the effect is by climbing into your blimp and taking a long view at the amount of land going unused because of lack of water. According to the stats crunched by UC Davis, a total 428,000 acres of land in the Central Valley, the Central Coast, and Southern California is simply empty of crops because of the drought. That's roughly five percent of the total land that can be used.

But perhaps the most worrying part of the study isn't in the numbers, but instead the policies. Specifically, how California still refuses to create rules for how to use the state's groundwater supply.

See, groundwater is the name for all of the underground reserves of water that seep down through soil and rock, ending up in aquifers and wells. Generally, it's used as a last resort. When rain is falling and the outdoor reservoirs are full, groundwater simply collects below. But for the past three years of drought, groundwater has been continuously pumped out, reducing our last reserves of water.

Where things get scary isn't that it's being used -- that's what it's there for, after all -- but that California has no regulations in place for how and when it's being used. (It's the only state in the country without a framework in place for groundwater management.) It's the Wild West, somewhat appropriately. And because of this lack of regulation, the lead author of the UC Davis study calls the groundwater management "a slow-moving train wreck":

"A well-managed basin is used like a reserve bank account," said [lead author Richard] Howitt, a professor emeritus of agricultural and resource economics. "We're acting like the super rich who have so much money they don't need to balance their checkbook."

A new ruling last week may change that, as a Sacremento Superior Court judge decreed if the use of groundwater "impairs public waterways" it needs to be regulated. Legal watchers believe this subtle change may pave the way towards actual groundwater regulation becoming a reality. But that's still a long ways from taking place. In the meantime, the train keeps shuffling towards the broken bridge, the groundwater keeps pumping.

And when those wells run dry, well, let's just say we don't want to get to that point.

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