In a remarkable turn of events, California's devastating drought could produce one of the state's biggest environmental breakthroughs in decades.
Lawmakers need to seize the moment and enact groundwater management legislation to halt the draining of the aquifer under the state's most fertile farmland, a deepening crisis that this paper's Lisa Krieger vividly described in March.
For years, powerful agriculture groups have fought efforts to deal with the state's depleted groundwater, resisting any limits on farmers pumping from wells on their property. But on Monday, when the Association of California Water Agencies (ACWA) released recommendations to solve the state's groundwater crisis, limits and pump taxes were part of the plan. And the water agencies from agricultural regions in the Central Valley are on board.
The plan would establish a pump tax or some other fees on wells that gives water agencies the money they need to put water back underground in wet years, recharging the water table and stopping the subsidence of land that can result from over-pumping.
The Santa Clara Valley Water District has been doing this since 1964, which is why the valley doesn't have the groundwater problems common in the Central Valley.
This breakthrough could begin to reverse the decades-long pattern of degradation in the San Joaquin Valley. Hats off to the farmers and water agency leaders behind it. Now it's up to the Legislature to send a bill to Gov. Jerry Brown this year.
Some property owners are challenging water agencies' right to tax what they pump from wells on their own land. Expect those challenges to increase if the state adopts the ACWA plan, but it is a fight worth having.
California's groundwater is a statewide resource that needs to be regulated. Subsidence from overpumping risks not only permanent changes in the underground flow but also severe damage to roads, bridges and canals when the land sinks.
The water table in the Tulare Basin, for example, has dropped more than 20 feet a year from 2005 to 2010 from excessive pumping. But Tulare County farmers show no signs of exercising self-restraint on their own: They applied for an additional 182 well permits in the first month and a half of this drought year.
Besides a pump tax, the water agencies support placing limits on the amount that can be pumped when groundwater levels drop so low that the ground starts to sink. That is crucial to protecting the aquifer.
Lawmakers also should agree to increase the height of several California dams to capture additional water during wet years. This can dramatically increase storage without the degree of environmental and legal anguish involved in building new dams on wild rivers.
The Association of California Water Agencies' recommendations represent a breakthrough. Now the Legislature must act.