In a time of drought, with leaders up and down the state telling us every drop of water counts, Californians ought to be able to count every drop. The concept seems simple, but it’s not.
For the third year in a row, Sen. Fran Pavley, D-Agoura Hills, is pushing legislation to provide public access to otherwise confidential reports about groundwater wells.
Her Senate Bill 20, which cleared its first committee Tuesday, clearly warrants approval by the full Legislature. The bill would alter decades-old practices that lie at the confluence of perceived private property rights and scarce water. Because many who farm consider the water beneath their land their personal property, they oppose this rule. But as the exploitation of groundwater becomes ever more enticing, such laws are absolutely necessary.
Last year, Pavley co-authored with former Assemblyman Roger Dickinson California’s groundbreaking groundwater law. While it established the framework for monitoring and regulating groundwater use to guaurantee its sustainability, it gave counties 25 years to enact it.
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Part of the reason for the long time frame is that we know so little about our aquifers. Pavley’s new bill would help fill in the gaps in our knowledge. That makes it crucial.
Under a law that dates to 1951, drillers must provide information about wells to the California Department of Water Resources. But the law denies public access to what are called well logs.
Information in the logs is considered proprietary, part of well drillers’ stock in trade. Whatever competitive reasons might have existed in 1951 are far outweighed today by the need to understand where our water is and how best to share it.
A report by the Senate Natural Resources Committee staff notes that well logs show the location of wells, their depth and the types of soils at each elevation.
Academics and consultants could use that information to draw aquifer maps, identify the best places to inject water for underground storage, and avoid drilling into polluted plumes, as reported by the Center for Investigative Reporting. Farmers could see real benefit because drillers could use the logs of others to determine how deep they must drill, and what areas to avoid.
But public access foes include many heavyweights of California agriculture: the Western Growers Association, the California Farm Bureau Federation, the California League of Food Processors, the California Chamber of Commerce, and the Valley Ag Water Coalition, which represents many San Joaquin water delivery agencies.
Such kneejerk opposition is unfortunate. As urban water users face restrictions, if not rationing, they could turn against farmers whose crops use 40 percent of the water consumed by humans in California.
Meanwhile, extensive groundwater withdrawal has caused areas of the Central Valley ground to sink as much as 30 feet.
In the committee hearing Tuesday, opponents offered numerous reasons to vote against Pavley’s bill – well-log data could become fodder for lawsuits, terrorists could use the logs to locate wells and poison water, thieves could use them to locate valuable pumping equipment. Pavley’s bill offers a simple solution to all such fears. Before gaining access to the logs, people would provide their names, addresses and reasons for wanting to look at the logs. There also would be a fee to cover administrative costs.
Farmers and drillers in 10 other Western states have no such qualms, and they’ve made their information public for decades.
Californians ought to be praying for rain. This horrible drought is forcing lawmakers and the public to rethink who has access to all the water of the state. We have to share the state’s water. It is important to know exactly how much water there is to share and where to find it.