The only stronger law is that you must say “lifeblood” when you discuss CA water.

Dude. These are as true as any words ever written:

It’s often said that California is the only state that doesn’t regulate groundwater, but that’s not exactly true. In California, one rule always applies. Though unwritten, it exists in the form of dogma more powerful than words graven in stone: Any official, at any level, whenever speaking of groundwater, must assert emphatically that local control is the best of all possible alternatives.

Does one have to be a tenured professor, primarily in another field, to call this out? It is so true, despite the abundant evidence that local control has well and truly fucked up groundwater management in many places. In other places, local control has done a nice job. But local control of itself is no guarantee of a good outcome. Now, I am a bureaucrat deep in the state and effectively haven’t been out in the field in a decade or so. It is possible that with the perspective of distance, I would understand that state-level control is hamhanded and that in fact, we do create nonsensical regulations like “every groundwater basin must pump no more than 57.683AF/year” regardless of the unique regional character of each precious snowflake basin. Maybe. Maybe state regulation is the worst of all possible worlds, such that a fervent commitment to local control in every utterance is the only possible way to ward it off.

But from here, local control often appears to be strongly preoccupied with short-term self-interest, with local politicians too closely embedded with their neighbors to create structures that will be beneficial in the longer term but painful at first. Local control seems too oriented to maximum growth. It may have deep local knowledge, but not the staff capacity to create complex governance structures. Local control has some inherent drawbacks, especially for common good problems. I hear local control supported at the time, but it never comes with a precise explanation WHY it is the best possible alternative, just like I never hear WHY regional differences mean that the state can’t possibly issue relevant regulations.

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2 responses to “The only stronger law is that you must say “lifeblood” when you discuss CA water.

  1. You make a good point, but there’s some truth to the benefits of local control versus delegation to a regional or state authority. Let’s be generous and say local = watershed or aquifer. In that case, local control would be best EXCEPT if locals have a ST view AND either ecosystems (public goods) will be negatively impacted by poor management or non-locals will be obliged to bail out locals who ruin their water. Those conditions are pretty common in Calif., so now we see the nature of the problem — and solutions. Regional or state take-over to protect public goods and/or and end to bailouts.

  2. Sacramento Valley citizens are being directed to support “local control” over groundwater management in the Sacramento Valley [SV] by various federal, state and regional agencies. The de facto “local groundwater managers” are turning out to be privately owned irrigation districts. Some SV water districts are ramping up groundwater substitution water transfers (GWST) every year without sufficient prerequisite baseline data or monitoring infrastructure. Additionally, most senior water rights holders here are facing cutbacks to their surface water and are turning to groundwater for either in-district use or GWST sales. The GWST and added demand on the groundwater for in-district use or sales put existing well owners, streams and groundwater dependent ecosystems at risk of accelerated downward levels. The Northern Ca Water Association created SacValley IRWMP is using Ca prop 50 (taxpayer) funds to develop wells next to irrigation canals so that Sac Valley Irrigation Districts can sell their river water and fill canals with aquifer water. At the March 19, 2014 meeting of the California Water Commission, Dan McManus, Senior Engineering Geologist for the Department of Water Resources discussed the Department’s groundwater efforts…McManus explained the DWR policy: “We feel like a lot of the management activities at the local level, if they are incorporated into the IRWM program, could provide a means for more sustainable management…Financial assistance and facilitation services that we provide to help with groundwater management activities; and then the Future Water Supply Program which is focused on conjunctive management of the Sacramento Valley’s resources.” The DWR assumes that sustainable local groundwater management automatically includes groundwater substitution transfers. DWR is collecting data intending to “facilitate and support Sacramento Valley groundwater substitution transfers.” This might be sustainable if prerequisite baseline aquifer conditions are documented and a network of program specific monitoring wells in the shallowest portion of the aquifer which interacts with streams and groundwater dependent ecosystems were in place, but they are not. DWR, USBR are coordinating with “local” irrigation districts to manage the aquifer system of the Northern Sacramento Valley to meet the demand from junior water right contractors and putting less organized third parties at risk. County Basin Management Objectives have been in place for nearly 10 years. Monitoring reveals annual non-compliance to water level targets, but there is NO enforcement of the objectives. It appears that, absent judicial oversight, “local” management of aquifers in the NSV will replicate the dismal groundwater depletion of the southern central valley.