California made history this month by ending its “Wild West” policy of allowing uncontrolled groundwater pumping by nearly any landowner in the state. Three bills by Assemblyman Roger Dickinson (D-Sacramento) and Sen. Fran Pavley (D-Agoura Hills) passed in the final days of the legislative session, despite objections from Republican lawmakers and Central Valley Democrats, and they were signed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown on Sept. 16.
Agricultural interests that increasingly depend on pumping from wells drove the opposition.
“We’re concerned that these hastily written measures may come to be seen as ‘historic’ for all the wrong reasons,” said Paul Wenger, a Modesto almond and walnut farmer who is president of the California Farm Bureau. When lawmakers enacted the state’s first water law in 1914, they only addressed surface water. And over the last hundred years farmers have fought off every attempt at change.
San Jose has thrived as an urban community for the last 150 years due, in large part, to its extremely valuable groundwater resources. During the current drought, more groundwater than usual is being provided to us and, so far, maintaining our economic vitality, while avoiding the catastrophic conditions facing many other communities throughout California.
Our agricultural economy steadily grew for decades because of the abundant groundwater resources, until, in the late 1920s, it eventually demanded more water from the this underground bank than was being replaced by nature. The desire to continue this growth resulted in the formation of a local water conservation agency to capture more winter rainfall in upstream reservoirs.
An essential element of this organization was its permission to tax local farmers and water companies for each unit of water pumped, in order to fund the construction of dams and recharge facilities to increase the safe yield of the basin. This process also acted to stop the drastic impact of land surface subsidence, as clay deposits under ancient wetlands dewatered into once artesian aquifers.
Artesian aquifers are wells that allow water to flow to the surface without pumping. San Jose Water Company, the largest investor-owned water company in the country, was originally formed to capture the nonstop flow of water from the first well dug in downtown San Jose back in 1866. San Jose Water Company now delivers water to about a million customers in Silicon Valley communities, pumping about half of its supply from this underground reservoir.
Some communities used litigation to ensure that groundwater resources were allocated on a sustainable and equitable basis. Most basins facing overdraft accessed surface water from local or remote sources to augment or substitute its limited groundwater resources.
In the early 1970s, coastal communities in South Los Angeles and Orange County began using reclaimed wastewater to form hydraulic fresh water mounds underground. This was done to prevent salt water intrusion into their over-drafted groundwater basins. This led these communities to eventually support indirect potable reuse of their locally produced wastewater and, in the case of Orange County, construction of a 100-million-gallon-per-day reverse osmosis plant to recharge the groundwater basin along the Santa Ana River.
For the past 50 years, San Jose and its water wholesale agency, Santa Clara Valley Water District, has preferred other alternatives than indirect potable reuse to augment its water supply. With imported supplies threatened as our three-year drought extends into a possible fourth year, local leaders are calling for expediting construction of additional advanced water purification facilities. These would begin recharging our local groundwater basin with this locally available and drought-proof supply.
As leaders in the past rallied support to build dams and aqueducts to artificially augment our groundwater replenishment, today’s water leaders must build new infrastructure to better handle water recycling. We must refill our currently over-drafted aquifers and protect the productivity of Silicon Valley’s great natural treasure: our local groundwater basin.
Pat Ferraro served as an elected member of the Santa Clara Valley Water District from 1972-1995 and later served as executive director of the Silicon Valley Pollution Prevention Center. He is currently an adjunct professor at San Jose State University and Santa Clara University, lecturing on water law and policy and water resources management.