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Under New Groundwater Plans, Report Estimates 12,000 Domestic Wells Could Run Dry

Kerry Klein
Valley Public Radio
Most of the homes in Tombstone Territory, an unincorporated Fresno County community visited by Governor Gavin Newsom in July 2019, are served by private domestic wells.

The goal of the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, or SGMA, is to better regulate the state’s water reserves. But as the law rolls out, a new study predicts tens of thousands of people could lose their drinking water.

Under current SGMA proposals, known as groundwater sustainability plans, the study estimates thatas many as 12,000 domestic wells could run dry by the year 2040. Commissioned by the Water Foundation and put together by a group of drinking water advocacy organizations, the study estimates that as many as 127,000 residents could lose their water, and that the costs of repairing these wells could run up hundreds of millions of dollars.

These totals are likely an undercount, since the report focused on a region of the San Joaquin Valley representing only 26 of the state’s nearly 300 local water governments known as groundwater sustainability agencies.

“What is clear to us is that there will be, unless changes are made to these groundwater sustainability plans, real negative impacts to community access to drinking water,” says Jonathan Nelson of the Visalia-based Community Water Center, one of the groups that authored the report.

The cause is falling groundwater levels. Under SGMA, each groundwater sustainability agency determines how low its water table can be reasonably allowed to fall. Nelson says those levels might be appropriate for deep agricultural wells—especially since most stakeholders involved in SGMA decision-making represent agricultural interests—but too deep for the more shallow wells serving homes in many rural, unincorporated communities.

“These numbers aren’t meant to scare, but…this is enough to tell us that the problem is urgent, severe, and that it needs to be responded to,” says Nelson. He says his organization supports SGMA and efforts to increase California's groundwater accountability, but he hopes officials with the Department of Water Resources will look closely at groundwater levels when they review each local sustainability plan in the coming months.

Kerry Klein is an award-winning reporter whose coverage of public health, air pollution, drinking water access and wildfires in the San Joaquin Valley has been featured on NPR, KQED, Science Friday and Kaiser Health News. Her work has earned numerous regional Edward R. Murrow and Golden Mike Awards and has been recognized by the Association of Health Care Journalists and Society of Environmental Journalists. Her podcast Escape From Mammoth Pool was named a podcast “listeners couldn’t get enough of in 2021” by the radio aggregator NPR One.
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