Local groundwater sustainability agencies need the State to be Bad Cop

Fresno Bee reporter Ryan Sabelow did a nice job discussing the difficulties the new Groundwater Sustainability Agencies are going to have as they begin to manage groundwater.  But his interview on Take Two adds something he didn’t write in his newspaper piece.  Local grower reactions to the prospect of managing groundwater are so hostile that locally elected people will not do anything voluntary, nor sooner than they legally must.

At 2:45:

There’s a county supervisor who floated this idea of ‘hey, you know, maybe we should put some restrictions on selling groundwater outta county, maybe we should put some restrictions on, not putting in new wells in places that have never been farmed before.’  The blowback he received was pretty intense, from his description of it and they’re basically holding off until 2017 when they form the management agencies.  They’ve decided not to take any proactive steps because they figure that the county is gonna get sued by multiple parties.

At 4:19

They’re basically holding off and saying ‘you know, we, um, we’re not, we’re gonna let the process go, we’re not going to do anything proactive.’

The State should change the default for the nascent GSAs, from ‘status quo is better than the GSAs will bring’ to ‘status quo is worse that the GSAs will bring’.  Right now, the first thing the brand new GSAs are going to have to do is restrict or retire farmland.  If the State declared a moratorium on new permanent crops in basins with declining groundwater levels, the new GSAs would be coming in as the good guys, who could give growers some of what they want.

So far, it has been prohibitively difficult for local elected officials (even ones who are watching deep wells next door threaten their own farms) to face their neighbors’ resistance to managing groundwater.  They are too close; it is too much to live amidst the hostility.  They need a Bad Cop.  Right now, the threat is that in seven or ten years or someday, the State will be the Bad Cop, probably, in some as yet undefined manner.  The State should be the Bad Cop now, so the GSA’s can form and work.

  • The Water Board should declare a moratorium on new permanent crops in basins with declining groundwater, using the Reasonable Use Doctrine.  It is not reasonable to plant something that will need water for three decades over an uncertain water supply.
  • The Legislature should order a survey of infrastructure damaged by subsidence and a financial assessment of the cost of repairs.  The Legislature should order the agencies to develop a methodology for assigning those costs to the farms creating the overdraft, subsidence and infrastructure damage.

Locals claim to want local management, but Sabelow shows us how  they’re using the characteristics of local government to prevent managing groundwater as long as possible.  People who work at the State level are far more insulated from the interpersonal nastiness and being thrown out of office.  That gives the State the valuable ability to change the default for locals, so that locals switch from delaying GSAs and opposing groundwater management to demanding that GSAs form already, to save them from those mad men at the State.



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5 responses to “Local groundwater sustainability agencies need the State to be Bad Cop

  1. Looks like I have a lot of catching up to do! Much has happened in California since I last read your blog. Quick question: who forms/elects/appoints the GSAs? The users themselves? General electeds like county commissioners?

    • onthepublicrecord

      Almost all of October was about one single report. You can skip that, if you want, and you won’t have missed any broader commentary.

      (Although I actually did like going through that report. I will never be fooled by proposals to become more like Australia again!)

  2. onthepublicrecord

    I am not totally sure. I think local agencies can enter into agreements with other local agencies to cover the groundwater basin, and then propose to DWR that they will all together be the GSA. The elected officials in the original agency then become the officials of the GSA. I think.

  3. We’re working on a project to look at the prospects of using floodwaters more proactively to recharge groundwater basins. The growers we talked to were more enthusiastic about participating if they were given added pumping allocations that reflect their contributions to the aquifer and then allowed to transfer those rights to other growers.

    Arbitrarily trying to restrict growers planting decisions is a clumsy kluge that will be too cumbersome to respond to the changes in the agricultural marketplace. It will be a bureaucratic nightmare that will only make farmers even more angry than they are now. Think about what’s politically feasible, not about what will stir a hornets’ nest.

  4. Steve Bloom

    Water Board? This one, e.g.?