Monday, December 11, 2023







        California has had drought years and wet years, it’s had several “years of the woman” and the last few years might well have been called “years of housing increases,” at least when it comes to making new laws. Fully 56 such laws passed in 2023.


        But there’s never been a “groundwater year.” Yet, few resources are as important or as diminished as the unseen aquifers that sustain everything from apricots to avocados, almonds and asparagus, just to name a few items.


        Not to mention what they do for millions of city dwellers, who also get substantial parts of their water from underground basins.


        Drive almost any major highway in the agricultural San Joaquin Valley – including the 99, the 152, the 46 or the 58 – and you will see them: narrow pipes standing several feet above ground level.


        If you had driven the same roads 20 years ago, those pipes would have gone unseen, even though they had already been present for decades. That’s because each of them was almost completely underground at that time, while now they stand tall. Their height is the most visible sign of subsidence, a drop in the level of the farmland around them, as a result of groundwater pumping.


        For every time there’s a drought – and California has had four major ones in this century, lasting as long as five years each – farmers and cities pump ground water. No one knows exactly how much, because for many years there were no meters to measure it, and even now measurements are far from complete.


        Yes, the Tulare Lake basin, once thought to be the world’s largest extinct freshwater lake, saw an unexpected revival during the hugely wet year of 2022-23. But that extra-wet year only partially refilled most aquifers, in part because some of them had collapsed into much smaller spaces (from the sheer weight of surrounding rocks) during the large-scale pumping of the latest long drought.


        The Tulare Lake basin actually saw 27 major wells go dry in 2022 and 700 others enter the “at-risk” category. Those wells serve not only farms, but an area with about 146,000 residents.


        That’s why the state Water Resources Control Board is at last doing something. How much it can do remains to be seen. For a 2014 groundwater control law puts no limit on how much anyone can pump before 2030, still a few years away.


        The law did increase metering somewhat. But despite then-Gov. Jerry Brown’s touting it as a great achievement, the law actually was a ho-hum approach to what was already then an urgent problem.


        Now the water board staff recommends that several Central Valley groundwater agencies be put on probation because of how much they’ve drawn from under the surface.


        One issue: When some farmers extend their wells ever deeper, they can draw water away from the shallower wells of neighbors, and no one can be sure its happening until nearby wells run dry.


        If some agencies are put on probation – which could happen as soon as April, they could be forced under the 2014 law to report their full usage and pay something for groundwater they use. Plus, some large users might have to install meters, at last making their precise usage known,


        That’s important because many experts have estimated it might take a decade or more to restore aquifers in the Central Valley to their former levels, if subsidence has not already changed their shape and capacity too much.


        Forecasts suggest the current water year might be about as wet as the record-setting year just concluding. But that’s sheer speculation and the year could end up a dry one.


        That’s why it may be vital to get a true handle on the water usage of all well owners, regardless of how deeply they’ve drilled.


        For unless state officials know who’s using what and just where it’s originating, it will remain impossible to equitably manage the current limited underground supplies.



    Email Thomas Elias at His book, "The Burzynski Breakthrough: The Most Promising Cancer Treatment and the Government’s Campaign to Squelch It," is now available in a soft cover fourth edition. For more Elias columns, visit

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