Three years of drought have Californians debating an end to the state's status as one of the last in the West with a pump-as-you-please policy for the vital underground sources that provide up to 65 percent of the state's water.
Even with falling groundwater tables contributing to mandatory water restrictions for many cities, and forcing farmers and others to drill deeper and deeper wells, it's been down to the wire as to whether California's competing water interests are ready to translate that talk into action. California's status as the country's biggest farm economy, with the water-thirsty Central Valley the most productive U.S. agricultural area, makes the issue of interest nationwide. Farmers use 80 percent of the state's water.
The many ways that Californians increasingly are feeling the bite of the drought made this month's legislative session one of the strongest chances ever for the state to overcome the objections of farmers and others to adopt its first statewide groundwater management plan, backers say.
Two bills before lawmakers would require some local governments to start managing groundwater withdrawals, and authorize the state to step in if they fail. Legislators face an Aug. 31 deadline to get bills to Gov. Jerry Brown, however. A bill by state Sen. Fran Pavley, D-Agoura Hills, passed the state Senate 24-12 on Tuesday, heading for a vote in the Assembly by the end of the month.
Some in the state's influential agriculture bloc had been urging lawmakers to take up regulation at some other time.
California farmers "are scared to death" about ceding some oversight of critical irrigation water to state government, said Paul Wenger, an almond and walnut grower near the central California city of Modesto, and president of the California Farm Bureau Federation.
"Our members would probably just as soon say no. We know we can't completely say no," Wenger said. "People know there's a problem we have to get our heads around."
Other states treat groundwater more as a commonly shared resource, and have designated officials— in some states an engineer, in others a water court— in charge of divvying up groundwater allowances. In California, outside of areas where courts or other entities have stepped in, landowners have enjoyed unlimited use of their groundwater as a property right since Gold Rush days.
"California's been something of the Wild West when it comes to government management compared to other states," Pavley said.
Advocates of groundwater regulation say continuing to allow competing users to pump as much as they please could result in increasing groundwater shortages, more ground sinking, pollution of underground sources and other harm.
Even in an ordinary year, Californians pump out about 2 million acre-feet of groundwater— enough water for a year for 2 million families— more than rain and snow replenish, the state says.
This year is anything but ordinary, with more than 80 percent of the state classified in the highest category of drought. This year, drought will be responsible for $2.2 billion in losses in California, including a half-billion dollars in extra pumping costs as falling groundwater levels force drilling of deeper wells, a University of California, Davis report said last month. In parts of the San Joaquin Valley, falling groundwater tables are causing ground to sink at the fastest rates ever recorded, the U.S. Geological Survey says. And for some Californians who can't afford a deeper well, the only running water now comes via a garden hose from a neighbor's house.
For California's cities and towns, "when you have a drought occurring, it either makes you stronger, or it's going to kill you," said Carol Russell, mayor of the 9,000-resident Sonoma County town of Cloverdale, which imposed mandatory water conservation last winter. Russell showed off yards where her neighbors had torn out their lawns to make sure businesses had adequate water. She tried to keep her voice cheerful as she described watching the apple trees she had planted in her backyard wither.
In California farm communities, "there are incredible tensions about the people that have the most money can drill the deepest," Pavley said.
What Pavley and others describe as a race for the bottom has left even some ardent advocates of individual property rights uneasy about having enough water in the future for their almond groves, vineyards or row crops.
"They're approaching the precipice. That's the necessity that's driving them," said Tim Quinn, executive director of the Association of California Water Agencies, which includes some major water users.
Ebbing groundwater "will require us to change dramatically," Quinn said. "We get that, we know that, we're ready to deal with the modern world."
Quinn and others had linked prospects of the groundwater regulation to whether legislators and the governor also agreed to boost investment in surface water. That happened last week, when lawmakers agreed to a statewide vote on a $7.5 billion bond that would create new reservoirs, among other things.
A mix of climatology and politics accounts for the rush to get groundwater regulation to a vote now — before annual winter rains that could take the pressure off, said Peter Gleick, head of the Oakland-based Pacific Institute on sustainable water.
"Drought has opened the door to better policy" on water, he said. "But if next year is wet, this door may close."