Our View: End secrecy around groundwater data

July 7, 2014 

California is the only western state that does not regulate its groundwater. It’s also the only state that keeps most of its data on groundwater pumping secret.

As Sacramento Bee reporter Tom Knudson pointed out in a Sunday story (“State keeps water well logs secret,” Page A1), California insists on adhering to a wrongheaded, outdated, counterproductive 1951 law that makes well logs and drillers’ reports confidential and unavailable for public inspection. That makes true groundwater management all but impossible.

With virtually every city in the San Joaquin Valley relying on groundwater for all or most of its drinking water, the demands on the underlying aquifers should be public knowledge. Those demands are increasing every day. Many rural residential wells are already dry. Even a few cities are anxious that their wells will continue to draw water.

Since most groundwater basins are connected, and frequently extend beyond the jurisdictional boundaries of cities and counties, the state needs to be involved. But so do residents, and they can’t be if the state keeps the data secret.

Sen. Fran Pavley of Agoura Hills introduced a bill in 2011 (SB 263) that would have made the information available to researchers, but it became so watered down that Gov. Jerry Brown rightly vetoed it. Pavley came back in 2012 with SB 1146 to grant full public access to well logs. It failed.

Now, Pavley and the Governor’s Office are cooperating to produce a groundwater-management bill by August.

“We’re seeing economic loss of jobs … the costs of drilling wells deeper and deeper and how that affects competition between neighbors,” said Pavley in June hearings. “It’s very much a problem and a crisis.” We agree.

But Pavley and the governor should also seek input from the legislators representing areas most impacted – such as Sens. Anthony Cannella of Ceres and Tom Berryhill of Twain Harte and Assembly members Kristin Olsen and Adam Gray. The experiences of Stanislaus and Merced counties could be essential in developing a meaningful law. For instance, Stanislaus County’s Water Advisory Committee produced 17 recommendations. They included a provision for “relief funding” to mitigate “well impacts.” Other counties will undoubtedly need similar provisions.

Regardless, the legislation should force counties to act. After all, counties grant the permits for new wells; those permits should require pumping volumes to be reported and to be public.

Opponents fear that such transparency would raise questions about who’s pumping how much, where they’re pumping and what they’re doing with the water. That is precisely the point. Public disclosure is key to real groundwater management.

To date, the Pavley bill does not call for repeal of Water Code Section 13752, which prohibits public disclosure of well logs. The governor hasn’t mentioned it, either.

A working group is scheduled to meet in the governor’s office today. Public disclosure is vital and it must be included. California cannot manage this essential public resource without public assistance.

As Knudson wrote, even in Texas “the drillers’ log information is public.” Do we really need Texas to tell us how to do something right?

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