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Report: Groundwater Overhaul Could Threaten Drinking Water Of More Than A Million Valley Residents

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As drought settles over the San Joaquin Valley, a new report warns of other circumstances that could result in entire communities losing drinking water.

More than a million Valley residents could lose their public water in coming decades under the sweeping groundwater legislation known as the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA), according to the paper published earlier this month by the non-profit Pacific Institute.


Signed into law in 2014, SGMA aims over the next two decadesto reduce California’s groundwater deficit by balancing water pumped out of the ground with the amount replenished. The groundwater overhaul called for the state’s groundwater basins to be divided into hundreds of local governing boards known as groundwater sustainability agencies (GSA), each of which has created its own sustainability plan to ostensibly meet the needs of all of its water users.


The report argues, however, that many of these plans will leave more vulnerable communities behind, made all the more urgent by the fact that in 2012,former Governor Jerry Brown signed the “human right to water” into law.


In their sustainability plans, each GSA is tasked with determining a “minimum threshold” groundwater level – essentially the depth that groundwater can fall to before “significant and unreasonable” impacts like dewatering begin to occur. Among the 31 sustainability plans in the Valley reviewed in the report, minimum thresholds are on average about 100 feet below pre-drought groundwater levels in 2019. Although many wells serving agricultural interests and large cities extend deeper into the aquifer, the report found that many public wells don’t reach far enough underground to remain above those minimum thresholds.


“What’s really concerning here is that over 40 percent of small water systems with one to two wells will lose access to water if their groundwater levels decline,” says Pacific Institute research associate and report author Darcy Bostic.


In contrast to domestic wells that may serve one household at a time, many of whose ownersare also concerned about being left behind by SGMA, the wells Bostic studied are located in community water systems, each serving anywhere from hundreds to tens of thousands of residents. Of the 214 Valley water systems she studied, she estimates that more than half of them would be in danger of losing water in 30 percent or more of their wells, which could threaten the water supply of the entire community.


“The idea is that we never reach those levels,” says Bostic. “But what we find is that bad things happen way before you ever reach those minimum threshold water levels.”


What’s more, according to the report, these threatened wells are more likely to be located in communities of color and with average annual incomes below $75,000 than in whiter, more affluent communities. Vulnerable wells are concentrated in Tulare and Kern Counties.


Bostic says it’s too early to predict when wells could go dry, especially given current drought conditions, but there’s likely still time for local groundwater agencies to help their communities survive declining water levels. “It would be nice for them to take this analysis, use the well data sets that they have, create new ones, to really understand the impacts, and then talk with those water systems and figure out what they could do,” she says.


Although communities with vulnerable water systems could presumably deepen their wells—assuming they could afford the costs and long wait times required for high-demand well-drilling services—the report suggests other solutions would be more sustainable, including creating recharge basins to replenish underground aquifers and consolidating smaller community systems with nearby larger, more robust ones. “Digging deeper straws isn’t a long-term solution,” Bostic says. “You do have to stabilize groundwater levels at some point.”


The Department of Water Resources is currently reviewing the plans from the state’s roughly-300 GSAs, many of which were due to the state in early 2020. Bostic hopes the agency will factor in the human right to water before giving those plans its stamp of approval.


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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