Groundwater overdrafters should pay for the infrastructure they are breaking.

Here’s a news story showing some infrastructure in Fresno county that is sinking, cracking and breaking because farmers are overdrafting groundwater.  The interesting part comes at 1:48, where the reporter says:

The price tag for just replacing this one small bridge is about two and a half million dollars.  Much of the burden for fixing it will fall on the taxpayers.

Cut to Mr. Son, Deputy Director at Fresno County Public Works, saying:

The bridge itself is our responsibility.  It is our responsibility to maintain and make repairs. … We could have a bridge that could be replaced for a million.  We are currently working on some bridges that cost upwards of twenty-five million.

The reporter again at 2:40 (my bold):

Subsidence is also causing problems along the California Aqueduct, roads and railroad tracks.  Fresno County hopes to get federal and state help in paying for the bridge work.  The US Geological Survey is estimating the long term damage from sinking land could cost us billions of dollars.

There is clear case law.  The farmers overdrafting groundwater are liable for the costs of fixing those bridges, roads and railroad tracks.  Fresno County Public Works shows no willingness to go after them, hoping instead that we will all pay those costs.  I wonder what it would take for Fresno County Public Works to change their stance.  What if the broken infrastructure were very squarely within the drawdown from one identifiable well?  What if there were good data that showed that the local damage is directly attributable to three local growers?  What would be a direct enough connection that Fresno County would go directly after the vandals rather than spreading their costs to us?  Maybe Fresno County can’t do it, because the defendants are also their constituents.  In that case, what about Union Pacific?  They owe no loyalty to local farmers, but Union Pacific is eating the costs of their behavior.

What is needed here?  The belief that going after growers is the right thing to do?  Clear data tying damage to specific wells?  A taxpayer revolt when the county has to raise taxes on everyone who lives there, instead of the people who broke their bridges?


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9 responses to “Groundwater overdrafters should pay for the infrastructure they are breaking.

  1. Uti

    Your questions need to be asked in all the papers. Poor planning and behavior is not the public’s responsibility to pay for. So it’s no wonder why the growers don’t want well monitoring—too hard to blame the individuals.

    • onthepublicrecord

      We wouldn’t necessarily need well monitoring. Accurate survey data with a well in the middle of a cone of depression and a broken bridge right next to it might do the trick.

  2. onthepublicrecord

    It would be cheaper to
    1. impose a moratorium on permanent crops in the SJ Valley until groundwater levels come back up,
    2. have growers fallow their lands in drought years so they don’t cause additional subsidence
    3. send a check for $50k/year to each farmer household that has fallowed annual crops in dry years.

  3. Great article, thank you. Groundwater is part of our Public Trust, not only is it being exploited to the detriment of our other social needs/public assets (infrastructure) as you point out, but it is taking (stealing) from future generations. Overpumping=aquifer collapsing=permanent destruction of the resource. We can not survive droughts without available groundwater. Should we price water to pay for infrastructure replacements AND for the replacing of that lost groundwater (as in desalination, recycle, etc)? #publictrustwater

  4. Steve Bloom

    Wow, so this is a cult-status blog! Little did I know…

  5. Subsidence is only the most visible damage to public resources. Pumping groundwater almost always affects streams, rivers, lakes, and reservoirs. In Stanislaus County, we have orchards a stone’s throw from reservoirs and major rivers. The removal of water from these public resources is legal theft, mostly because the law and public knowledge are many decades behind science. How long will it be before people demand compensation for the damage?

  6. onthepublicrecord

    Taking the subsurface flows of a river by well is not legal. It is straight up theft (unless your permit for river water has “well” as diversion method). Your well has to be far enough back that it doesn’t take river water. That’s not enforced, but it is how the State Board’s water rights department thinks of it.