By Tito Sasaki
Statewide, the persistent drought has been depleting reservoirs and streams. As the surface water supply dwindles, more demand is put on groundwater, and now the crisis is reaching there, too. Government may step in anytime to take control of your wells.
According to the California Water Code, all water within the state is the property of the people of the state. State can determine how surface and ground waters should be handled. Thus, our water rights are not one of absolute ownership but only the right to use the state’s water reasonably for beneficial uses. As for priority of uses, the Water Code says domestic use of water is top and the next is irrigation. Other unranked beneficial uses include municipal, fish & wildlife preservation, and recreation. This priority has not always been followed in allocating water. Groundwater management can be seen as a means to protect our right to use groundwater for ag purposes.
There are four alternative instruments for managing groundwater: 1) Adjudication, where the court decides how much groundwater each landowner can use; 2) Special District, created either by state legislation or by local vote, to impose assessments and limit new wells and pumping, or otherwise manage groundwater resources; 3) Local Ordinance, through which a county controls groundwater extraction and transfer; and 4) Assembly Bill 3030 (1992) Groundwater Management, under which a local public agency works cooperatively to manage groundwater resources within its jurisdiction.
Sonoma County has opted to take the AB 3030 approach, and Sonoma County Water Agency is leading the non-regulatory, voluntary management efforts, starting with the Sonoma Valley and Santa Rosa Plain areas. The Agency has laid out a Groundwater Management Program (GMP) and established a Basin Advisory Panel for each area, mapped aquifers, and has been collecting and analyzing data on groundwater level and quality, geology, land use, precipitation, stream flow, etc.
The main tools of GMP are: 1) water conservation; 2) conjunctive use (the switching of surface water and groundwater uses based on their availability); 3) recycled water; and 4) enhanced groundwater replenishment. The first three, all aimed at reducing groundwater use, are already in progress. But the last one is new.
The natural process of replenishing groundwater is the percolation of surface water to aquifers. Farmland is a major contributor to the natural recharge. It can be further enhanced by managed percolation and injection. Managed percolation means flooding an area that is geologically suitable for percolation. Injection is the reverse of groundwater pumping. Potable water is injected through a well to the aquifer for later recovery. It is called groundwater banking or aquifer storage and recovery (ASR).
Will our right to pump remain when the aquifer under our property is partially filled with water brought by groundwater banking? The root cause of the current statewide crisis could be traced to our collective failure in building and managing adequate surface water supply. If so, shouldn’t we be trying harder to increase surface storage and conveyance capacities and also ease regulatory hurdles hindering such solutions? There are many questions to be answered. We all must get involved in the GMP, and make it work locally. The alternative may be worse than the drought.